by Tom Davenport

Sneaky Knowledge Management Tricks

Sep 01, 20013 mins
Enterprise Applications

I truly hope you liked this Case File, because I expect we’ll all be hearing much more about similar situations. Preventing or replacing “lost knowledge” from departing employees is going to be a big deal. In Northrop Grumman’s case, the motivation came from an impending head count reduction. While I suspect there will be some of that in the future, the more common situation will involve massive retirements, as baby boomers move on to the next stage of life, creating a giant sucking sound as their knowledge and experience leave the workforce.

Northrop Grumman, then, is a harbinger of our future and is clearly smarter than most employers who are canning lots of people. However, the case invites one major question about massive layoffs as a motivation for knowledge management initiatives: Why should someone participate?

If I suspected a layoff, and a headquarters type came around talking to me about knowledge management, it would probably take more than a free lunch to get me to spill what I know. I might either hold back my knowledge, on the assumption that the bosses would be less likely to ditch me if my knowledge remained in my head, or I’d wildly exaggerate my expertise levels in the hopes that they’d want to hold on to the experts they’ve got. Maybe the Northrop Grumman people were very circumspect about the reasons for this knowledge management investigation, though that sort of thing tends to slip out.

As to the specific methods used by the company to address potential lost knowledge, it’s all reasonable stuff. The term knowledge audit tends to imply a high level of rigor, but it’s really shorthand for “a survey of knowledge attitudes, beliefs and capabilities.” It’s a good starting point for any major KM initiative, as it provides a sense of the key problems and issues.

The technology in the case sounds like a well-rounded portfolio. However, only two of the applications seem to address the key issue at the company: extracting and sharing tacit knowledge. Expert locator and collaboration technologies can aid in the circulation of tacit knowledge. But all the other typical KM applications in the case are generally useful only for explicit (not pornographic, but rather easily put in codified form) varieties of knowledge.

My hope is that Northrop Grumman and other companies will not become too successful at extracting knowledge from people before they leave the organization. After all, it’s already too easy to fire people.