Six ways to capture knowledge

Six ways to capture knowledge — or do without.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief

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The current generation of experienced plant professionals is being lost to retirement, displaced by job relocations and antiquated by advances in manufacturing technology. The supply of appropriately skilled, educated and trained personnel is, at best, strained, and in many places, totally inadequate.

An April 2008 survey of 100 senior manufacturing executives indicates that in the past three years, the need to replace lost skilled workers has grown from a concern to a crisis. The executives say the shortfall will cost their companies an average of $52 million, and even more, $100 million, for the nation's largest companies that report more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The benchmark survey, commissioned by Advanced Technology Services Inc. (ATS) and conducted by Nielsen Research, says that during the next five years, about 40% of your skilled labor force will retire.


Improve productivity

The white paper, “Workforce Trends: Tools for taking control of today's skilled labor shortage,” by Advanced Technology Resources (ATS) provides guidance on what companies can do to stem the tide. It shows the immediate and long-term benefits of taking proactive steps to recruit, train and promote a multiskilled labor force to make factories more productive in-house, so manufacturers won't look elsewhere for less-expensive production alternatives. Find it at


We can be confident that societal, government and market forces eventually will close the gap, but in the meantime, how much institutional knowledge can you afford to let walk out the door? Most would agree that a company’s competitive edge relies heavily on its intellectual capital — the knowledge it possesses within its organization — and much of that resides in its employees (Figure 1). It makes sense to take steps now to capture the departing expert’s critical know-how.

The same strategies and infrastructure you use for capturing knowledge also can provide a way to gather and compare alternative approaches, distill best practices and distribute them to dispersed personnel, shifts and locations. Captured knowledge also might significantly reduce the time and expense of disaster recovery, and can be invaluable for training new recruits.

Rely on the Web

It seems that everything anyone really needs to know can be found on the Web. But as mathematician and writer John Allen Paulos said, “The Internet is the world’s largest library. It’s just that all the books are on the floor,” to which a wag once added, “and the lights are off.” It takes some time and skill to home in on truly relevant information, and experience is helpful for determining which sources can be trusted.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Employees’ brains remain by far the largest repository of the knowledge companies rely on for a competitive edge. (Source: The Delphi Group)
Figure 1. Employees’ brains remain by far the largest repository of the knowledge companies rely on for a competitive edge. (Source: The Delphi Group)
Web sites, including, have amassed huge amounts of information about industrial maintenance, plant engineering, reliability and more. Exploration can lead you to a set of sites you can draw on to replace general knowledge, establish standard procedures, find specifications and get instructions for many common situations and pieces of equipment.


But the public portions of the Web can’t offer details about your own facility, nor a secure structure for storing that site-specific (and perhaps proprietary) information. And other people’s Web sites aren’t very useful for capturing know-how or organizing, storing and sharing your body of knowledge.

Subscribe to wisdom

Much of the Web’s most arcane but useful knowledge resides behind paid subscriptions or pay-by-the-download. Paid access to a reputable source might ensure that information is accurate, complete, organized and up to date. And a paying client might obtain a competitive edge by getting information that’s not available for free.

One example is SKF’s @ptitudeXchange. Originally planned as the database model for the company’s decision-support system, it gives access to knowledge and experience in rotating equipment, machinery, components, software and instrumentation from SKF and its alliance partners.

Contents focus on asset management (achieving the lowest total cost of ownership with maximum availability, performance efficiency and product quality), reliability engineering (RCA, FMEA, predictive maintenance, vibration analysis, inspection techniques and thermography) and mechanical maintenance (alignment, balancing, bearing installation and equipment history tracking).

It includes overview documents, technical handbooks, white papers, application notes, best practices, interactive tutorials and benchmarking information, as well as interactive advisory systems for help with day-to-day analysis and decision-making. There also are public and private forums, where you can get answers to questions or search for and find solved problems.

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