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Knowledge Retention in Times of Disruption

May 19, 2021 Knowledge and Findability
By Sam Marshall

I once worked with a company that would say farewell to long-serving employees by publishing an exit interview with them in the company magazine. People would say, "Gosh, I never realized Sally knew all about X, I wish I’d asked her about it before she went." We came to call these interviews "knowledge obituaries."

You pay good money to hire people with experience, expertise and the right qualifications. Yet sometimes the diligence that goes into valuing a new hire’s knowledge is missing when it comes to retaining that knowledge, particularly when restructuring decisions are being made. Right now, as employers adapt and re-plan around the pandemic, and employees also reflect on their choices, we’re seeing major shifts in employment patterns.

I’m not going to argue that knowledge can somehow be decanted from people, or that there’s an AI silver bullet that will automatically retain knowledge when people leave (not even Microsoft Viva Topics). However, we can take steps to get smarter about knowledge retention, as long as we recognize that knowledge is many things, not one.

Not Another Definition of 'Knowledge'

We tend to use the term 'knowledge' very loosely, or at least we do until we talk to a Knowledge Management person, after which days can be lost wrangling between definitions of information, knowledge, wisdom, know-how and numerous semi-synonyms. So let’s sidestep that hairball by framing the question as:

How does my organization ensure continuity of capability?

This seems like a more practical perspective. We’re not in the business of just storing knowledge. What we want to know is how can a company keep doing what it does, given the people doing it will inevitably change over time? How can we minimize the risk that goes with it?

Related Article: One Business Outcome of the Pandemic: Organizational Knowledge Loss

The RESPOND Model

Once you start thinking about continuity of capability, it makes sense to recognize that what an employee does has multiple components, all of which get labelled ‘knowledge’ at times. I find it helpful to use this acronym as a reminder:

Rules of Thumb (heuristics, professional shortcuts) 

Experience (hands-on, real-world execution)                                               

Skills    (driving, public speaking, negotiating etc.)                           

People (personal network & organization knowledge)         

Objects (documents, processes, etc.)

Natural Talent (e.g. intelligence, abstract-thinking)                                     

Declarative Knowledge (what-is, facts and figures)

Usefully it spells out ‘Respond’ so it is easy to remember. Less usefully, it doesn’t mean anything that clever. But the approach is my remix of the ASHEN model, which doesn’t mean much either. What it adds to ASHEN are the 'declarative knowledge' and 'people' dimensions, which are often essential parts of successfully fulfilling a role.

Related Article: Defining the Knowledge-Centric Workplace

Identify Your Knowledge Role Models

You can model someone's role by breaking down the components of what they know and do into the elements of the RESPOND model. For example, we might break down a sales role into:

Dimension

Examples

Rules of Thumb

When a prospect is ready to close; how much discount to offer

Experience

Dealing with objections; how to adapt to customer styles

Skills

How to pitch; listening

People

Contacts for an introduction; sideways influencing

Objects

Sales collateral such as brochures and specification sheets.

Natural Talent

Personality; quick thinking

Declarative Knowledge

Product data; competitor intelligence

Don't get caught up trying to categorize things perfectly. The goal is to identify how each element plays a part. A newly-trained surgeon may be more up to date with facts and theory, but lack the experience to think clearly when a procedure goes wrong, for example. The engineer who can fix problems nobody else can may not be more of an expert, but may have the charisma and people network that means she can call on a diverse set of people to help diagnose it.

Related Article: Reboot Knowledge Management for the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Planning Knowledge Retention

The final part of retention planning is to understand the risk and mitigation elements of the RESPOND model profile. Each element will need its own approach. For example, objects and declarative knowledge are amenable to documentation, so the focus may be about when to use these resources. Things like experience are harder to replicate, but there are ways of structuring learning to accelerate it. Natural talent is the tricky one — there’s no way to transfer it, but you can at least identify it and know of its significance when deciding to retain or replace a key resource.

For the more explicit knowledge types, see my earlier article: "Clear Knowledge Management Roadblocks with This Diagnostic Tool."

Dimension

Suitable approaches

Rules of Thumb

Knowledge mapping, discussion forums

Experience

Storytelling, learning histories, after action reviews, discussion forums, communities of practice, mentoring

Skills

Recruitment, coaching, training

People

Social networks, communities of practice, mentoring

Objects

Mind-mapping, task-observation, documentation

Natural Talent

Recruitment, coaching, storytelling

Declarative Knowledge

Knowledge mapping, wikis, training, documentation

One of the most useful approaches I’ve found is to get experts to recall a memorable project or event and talk it through. The first time they tell it, the story will probably be too neat: every decision lead perfectly to the next step. But if you run through it again asking questions like “What other options were there?” “What would you have done if that hadn’t worked out?” “Where did you get that information from?” you can start to unpack the multiple capabilities that were involved in the outcome.

Responding Early

The main thing to note is that some kinds of knowledge are much harder to replicate or are necessarily intrinsic to the individual. These represent the highest risk and need the longest-term planning. It is also why no single tool — such as an enterprise social network, document repository or topic map — will fully capture corporate knowledge.

By the time you know somebody is leaving, it is probably too late to do anything but write the knowledge obituary. But taking a strategic approach at least gives you longer-term resilience and a continuity of capability.

About the Author

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 18 years, working with companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and AkzoNobel.

He is the lead author of the annual SharePoint Intranets in-a-box review.

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