Monday, 13 January 2014

Mind the gaps - managing knowledge and minimising its loss

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  We last examined ‘quality’ and the related problems that organisations may encounter, such as inconsistent performance, increased costs and reputational damage.

We now turn to knowledge gaps.

What is the problem? 

The world is divided between those organisations that manage their knowledge and the rest.  Relatively few organisations treat knowledge as an asset and fewer still do so in ways that protect and enhance its value.  Consequently, they remain exposed to significant risk when (a) new work reveals they lack sufficient knowledge in certain areas or (b) high-value knowledge is lost when employees retire or (even worse) resign and enable competitors to benefit therefrom.

How does it manifest itself?

Organisations that choose not to manage their knowledge in a planned, deliberate way leave themselves exposed to ‘key-person dependency’, where critical knowledge is retained by a few individuals.  Where such knowledge is guarded jealously, the ‘chosen few’ may wield disproportionate influence; conversely, such individuals may be held back in roles because their ‘loss’ (whilst understandable and necessary for positive career development) will leave their less experienced former colleagues struggling to fill the gap.

The risk associated with this massively increases when the most knowledgeable employees retire or resign to join another company – the latter being a double blow to their firm since valuable (yet clearly undervalued) knowledge has not only been lost but to a competitor who can now enjoy its benefits.

Some companies respond to such problems by hiring temporary consultant support - often in the form of former employees - to ‘plug the gap’.   However, this may be expensive and can only be considered a ‘sticking plaster’ solution.  Failure to make more fundamental changes means that such companies remain prone to the vagaries of the market - notably in niche, specialist areas.

Examples of this issue include hiring 'locum' doctors and the mobilisation of military reservists to address manning shortfalls in hospitals and on operational deployments respectively.

What is its impact?

Undervaluing knowledge and the failure to anticipate and mitigate its loss can adversely affect organisations, by:

  • Preventing delivery to deadlines, as employees taken for granted move elsewhere;
  • Increasing costs and reducing profits (or incurring losses) as reactive measures are used to address knowledge loss.

What recommendations are made to address it?

We’ve already mentioned (and discounted) the short-term solution of contracting in specialists.  Longer-term responses, that seek to develop enduring capabilities, have included:

  • A KM assessment – used to measure and benchmark an organisation’s KM capabilities against others in its field, including best in class; this is often the start-point for any organisation’s journey towards credible knowledge management;
  • A knowledge scan – used to identify an organisation’s knowledge strengths and weaknesses; when faced with so many apparently vital subject areas, this enables an organisation to plan their retention and protection in a systematic and efficient way;
  • Retention interviews – used, usually following a knowledge scan, to build an organisation’s knowledge base to reduce the impact of the departure of experienced employees.  Complementary interventions include knowledge transfer strategies (i.e. to junior colleagues) and the creation of knowledge assets (i.e. using wikis, SharePoint or other technology).

Knoco Ltd. is a firm of knowledge management consultants providing these and other services to organisations that value knowledge and seek to use, re-use and leverage it to enable improved performance.  Please get in touch for more information on how we can help you manage your organisation's knowledge more effectively.

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