Know-how: leave a legacy!

The most recent Learning Cafe Webinar focussed on finding, sharing and growing internal expertise.  Some of the discussion was about knowledge sharing and it made me reflect on an approach I used some years ago in an organisation I worked with.

As a result of some strageic HR planning and statistical analysis, the impact of the ageing workforce became clear.  Simply, there would be a significant rundown in the numbers of “mature workers” (and therefore know-how) in the not too far distant future. This prompted reflection on ways and means of capturing valuable know-how before the “Baby Boomers” retired in numbers to graze in fields, golf courses and bowling rinks.

It seemed to me that here was an opportunity to put some structure and purpose around a knowledge harvesting effort and so the project put in place was called Wise Older Workers (WOW!).  The objective was to identify participants (knowledge contributors) who held valuable “tacit” knowledge and would be comfortable sharing it while still in employment.

Here are some of the challenges that came to light.

  • The WOW’s were busy people so getting time with them was difficult.
  • A “tag line” was needed to grab their attention and we chose the term “Leave a Legacy”.
  • There was some initial resistance – a couple thought this was a pre-cursor to them being retrenched.
  • Once contact was established and the purpose explained there was very little resistance.
  • The participants were pleased they had been identified as having valuable knowledge.
  • Some made comments like “here I am contemplating retirement and after 40 years this is the first time my knowledge has been recognised as valuable” and “why didn’t someone ask me about this years ago?”
  • The majority of participants were keen to share but further analysis determined that while some knowledge was valuable, there were large slabs of knowledge that, through the passage of time and advancing technology, was basically useless.
  • Rather than specific (the “latest”) knowledge some participants offered general principles and methodologies that were not recorded but have proven valuable over time, and immune to new systems and technology changes.
  • Consequently, it was necessary to get a feel for the usefulness of the knowledge before getting too “involved” with the participants as the last thing needed was hurt feelings.

I moved on from the organisation just as the project was hotting up and it didn’t continue, but it had became clear that –

  • regognition of knowledge was vital;
  • in this situation, respect for contribution over a lengthy career was key;
  • there was generally an innate desire to share – it was a matter of finding and turning on the tap;
  • there were issues with the ability of many participants to actually off-load their know-how;
  • in this situation, the knowledge recipient (in some cases the protege) needed skills and tools to help this off-loading process;
  • some recipients were not good at differentiating useful/unuseful know-how and then recording it as explicit knowledge;
  • finding time for the process would probably be best handled formally rather than ad.hoc – when we have time basis; and
  • in some cases a third party who was able to “mediate” the knowledge sharing would be useful, especially where specialist technical knowledge was involved.

We often think about “informal” methods to capture know-how.  Yes, it can work; it has for centuries!  But in some cases, such as minimising the impact of the ageing workforce, a formalised approach is probably more be effective simply because there is a specific purpose and all stakeholders need to understand what is trying to be achieved and why.

 Know-how: leave a legacy!