on November 28th, 2007

Dear colleagues

The myth of bottling your experienced techies know-how before they leave

My engineering peers often shake their heads ruefully when remarking on the wasted results of the last knowledge management exercise they have done. Often costing millions. A complete waste of time, they exclaim. Trying to bottle knowledge or experience of ones staff or peers before they retire or leave is exceptionally difficult. Impossible and mythical, perhaps.

Formally put (by Gartner): knowledge management is about identifying, capturing, retrieving and sharing knowledge in the business. This could include databases, documents, policies and more simply in an engineering context, know-how in your techies heads. The last one is the tricky one. Some researchers believe that the failure rate of knowledge management projects at up to 50%.

There are essentially two types of know-how that you want “to bottle”: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge can be written down e.g. A product specification for a breadmaking machine (or indeed, a password for your demented server). As opposed to tacit knowledge which is a core part of the craft or profession and is built on learning via actual experience and action, such as learning from a guru over a period of time on how to make good quality bread. Perhaps, also tuning a process control loop, with

a good feel for a plant vagaries.

We have numerous scattered pockets of expertise locked away on our sites in the heads of a few strategic engineers or techies or on grubby pieces of paper. I have seen plants being brought to their knees when a critical techie has left site (in one case, to present a course for us from a large processing plant which crashed and no one on the plant had the know-how to fix it it turned out that a quick phone call to him, unlocked the key issue and everything was humming smoothly again). When I had finished commissioning a particularly large iron ore plant some years ago, I used to leave site with great trepidation. As there was no one to hand over to. The client believed they didnt need any expertise on-site. They changed their mind after a few crashes and had a simple documentation system created with a few well trained techies on board to maintain the plant.

Hoarding knowledge and expertise is often regarded as a “good thing” to make one valuable and to hold management to ransom, in “difficult” times. But I believe the true engineering professional shares knowledge freely with no fear and absolute confidence in ones abilities and worth.

What I would respectfully advocate (but would welcome your suggestions) is:

  • Keep written procedures updated as to how “things are done” in a simple readable format (“as built”)
  • Put an “apprentice” in to learn the ropes from the various experts and then practice what they have learnt
  • Run short regular learning sessions on aspects of your engineering and business systems for everyone to gain and share the know-how
  • Spread the knowledge around as much as possible so no one is absolutely strategic
  • Make it easy to find all this information on your system. If it is not easy; it will be lost and forgotten
  • Try and index the know-how in an easy to access and easy to access format
  • Have rigorous backup procedures for your knowledge and databases (which work)
  • Convince everyone that it improves ones worth when they have to learn new methods and ways of doing things
  • Make sure you have the key person still accessible after they have gone ie they depart with much goodwill on both sides Swap roles around as much as possible so that you have people with a general know-how on doing critical items
  • Perhaps outsource tricky but rarely used functions to others outside your firm who can be called upon when needed at a cost effective hourly rate
  • Lock-in experienced people who want to retire on a part time arrangement where you will fit into their requirements
  • Store knowledge innovatively – video key procedures and store it on your system
  • Ensure the engineering leadership buys into the importance of retaining knowledge

Whilst it is important to realize that you have to work on building up your knowledge storage systems, a remark from Benjamin Disraeli makes us feel somewhat better:

To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.

Yours in engineering learning


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