When the Baby Boomers retire, how will you keep employee knowledge?

Feb. 8, 2008
Russ Kratowicz demonstrates how to use knowledge management to institutionalize what you're doing well.

Successful competition in a messy, volatile global marketplace isn’t particularly easy, even for the best, leanest, meanest manufacturing plants. It takes an entire company, not just corporate management, to demonstrate any semblance of improvement. It’s the aggregation of all those little things that people do each day, the fine tweaks they make in operating procedures that make a meaningful difference, either for the good or for the bad. In this sense, employees really are a company’s most important asset, as long as they are effective at communicating and diligent about succeeding in the marketplace. Sometimes it really is what you know that counts.

Putting employee knowledge to good use right now might be a smart way to generate perceptible value in the marketplace. This is particularly true because, as you’ve no doubt heard, the Baby Boomers are starting to bail out in large numbers. Knowledge management might even be a key to developing your own set of best practices that will endure when they go on to things that are more fun than working for a living. If you go this route, you’ll need to capture what employees know, document it and share it with other stakeholders, both within and without the building. So, take a few minutes to come with me for another dip into the digital morass we call the Web in search of practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free resources you might find useful for cleaning up that messy, volatile global marketplace. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.


“Gotcha” bills itself as a guide to knowledge management. A group of graduate students at the UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems designed the site for both newbies and power users who want to explore the topic. The site has a glossary of terms related to knowledge management, but there’s not much beyond that. I couldn’t get the search function to work and many of the links are terminally dead. That’s not much of a surprise, considering that the site probably was a class project and doesn’t appear to have been updated since 1999, when the school turned the students loose to find work in the real world. Anyway, you can go to www2.sims.berkeley.edu/courses/is213/s99/Projects/P9/web_site if you want to learn the jargon that can make you sound like an old hand at this knowledge-management business.

Join the club

The raison d’etre of the Birmingham, England-based OR Society is a discipline called operational research (OR). In fact, the organization claims to be one of the largest such groups in the world, having some 3,000 members in 53 countries. Operational research refers to the application of various analytical methods to common activities for the purpose of making better decisions about those activities. For example, an airline can use OR to find the optimum allocation of ticket types - the rigidly constricted loss-leader that gets the publicity, the mid-range that carries the financial load, and the high-priced version that can be purchased on short notice – that maximizes profits. Because knowledge management is an important part of the OR scene, the Society has much to say about it on its Web site. But, accessing the relevant material requires a cumbersome, multistep process. Begin by heading over to www.orsoc.org.uk and find the drop-down menu hidden under “OR & its applications.” Slide down to “OR topics” then, in sequence as pages load, “Introduction,” “Sections currently available,” “Knowledge management,” “Knowledge management, a review” and “Section map.” There is much scholarly material to be had if you make the effort.

Hardware knowledge

“The Importance of Knowledge Management to the Asset-Management Process,” by Hodkiewicz, Coetzee, Dwight and Sharp, was published in Oil and Gas Processing Review during 2006 and addresses the idea of knowledge management as it would be applied to managing assets in the plant. The authors point out that because capturing and sharing asset-centric information is a challenge, knowledge management can be useful. They identify the four basic steps in applying knowledge management to hardware and discuss some common difficulties that can arise. These include a mismatch between the available data and what’s needed for effective decision-making, motivation and skills retention. This Web resource can be found by going to www.touchbriefings.com, where you should click on “PDF Files 10” at the bottom of the page. Then, use CTL-F to search for “Hodkiewicz.” Finally, click on the article title.

On the assembly line

The pace at which discrete manufacturing must operate if it’s to be competitive might be bearable in the long run if procedures, tools, materials, designs and personnel remained static. But, if you get that line cranking along and then start changing the inputs, you’ve got a potential train wreck on your hands. On the other hand, the judicious use of knowledge-management software can smooth things out. So argue Kasvi, Nieminen, Pulkkis and Vartiainen from the Laboratory of Work Psychology and Leadership at Helsinki University of Technology. In an online article, they explain the reasons that some attempts to introduce knowledge-management software might fail. On the positive side, they also reveal the three things they believe are needed for a successful introduction. They believe the primary goal you should have is some sort of organizational learning. As examples, they offer three case studies of applying knowledge management in the industrial arena. Take a moment to read them by moving on to www.knowledge.hut.fi/projects/itss, where you’ll scroll down and click on “Our abstracts,” then on “Knowledge Management on the Shop-Floor.”

Knowledge for green

“Environmental Knowledge Management” is an article by Iddo Wernick, a senior research associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. The piece appeared in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in early 2002. Before we go on, understand that industrial ecology is a concept of a decidedly green hue that views an industrial system as particular case of an ecosystem, except that it’s based on capital rather than on natural life and inert resources. Wernick proposes we combine industrial ecology with knowledge management to form a construct called environmental knowledge management for the purpose of improving a plant’s environmental performance. Plants that use activity-based costing or metric-based management might already have a head start on minimizing the cost of gathering necessary information for green purposes. Wernick points out, though, that software alone isn’t sufficient. The secret is participation, data maintenance and management support. Anyway, you can read this article at www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1162/108819802763471735.

No islands allowed

You can’t go it alone. Real life is a complex proposition. Everything and everyone has the potential to interact with every other entity that calls Earth its home. These interactions form a vast and complex network, the understanding and documentation of which can be most confusing. Gene Bellinger, from Manchester, England, advocates the concept of systems thinking as a path to enlightenment about network interactions. Based on the content of his Web site, he evidently put a lot of time into thinking about systems. His goal, you see, is to understand systems by simplifying, mapping and modeling the complexity in the relationships and interactions that form them. I mention this only because Bellinger offers an approach to business philosophy and concludes that knowledge management qualifies as part of the mix. Take a gander at the material at www.systems-thinking.org/index.htm, the home of Mental Model Musings. Don’t be put off by the diagrams filled with words and curved arrows that show how entities influence each other. You’ll find several articles about knowledge management listed under “Business and Organizations.” If you read carefully, the arrows will make sense.

From the Fourth Estate

Don’t walk blindly into a knowledge-management initiative without having at least a little knowledge about the lay of the land before you. Success will depend on more than simply having a super-duper database that everyone can access. There’s always a political aspect to any such big idea that someone tries to get a company to adopt across the board. You can get a flavor of the ways you can address the challenges in “ABC: An Introduction to Knowledge Management (KM),” an article by Meridith Levinson, a staffer for CIO magazine. She defines knowledge management and explains the sort of material that could be considered as intellectual assets. The article offers definitions of explicit and tacit knowledge, and includes some ideas on transferring the tacit type. She lists the five benefits a company can expect from having a successful knowledge-management system in place. She goes on to offer advice on getting that all-important buy-in when you’re trying to push through such touchy-feely initiatives, and follows up with tips for demonstrating the return on your knowledge-management effort. Unfortunately, many of the links to the supplementary articles don’t appear to be live. Nevertheless, there’s a case to be made for knowing about www.cio.com/article/40343 so your mouse can explore ideas from an award-winning journalist.

Devil’s advocate

Not everyone blithely hops on the knowledge-management bandwagon. T.D. Wilson, Professor Emeritus at University of Sheffield, England, and publisher of Information Research, a scholarly journal dedicated to research across information-related disciplines, is skeptical of the idea. His article, “The nonsense of knowledge management,” argues that failing to acknowledge the difference between the terms knowledge and information is a fatal mistake. Wilson then offers a scheme by which you can easily discern the distinction between the two. With that complete, he reports on his search of scholarly literature and critiques the relevant content in each of the journals he found. Next, he shifts to the major business consultancies and shows how they deal with the differentiation. Finally, he explores how business schools handle the issue. If you don’t have time to read this article, all 11,000 words of it, skip down to his conclusions near the end, where he summarizes his thoughts on this idea of knowledge management. Wilson’s food for thought can be found at http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html

Without comment


E-mail Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, at [email protected].

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