Conversations about knowledge continuity often relate to succession planning and the retirement of key older leaders. While these considerations are obviously important, they can mask the fact that, these days, business critical expertise and knowledge often reside lower down in the organisation and with younger employees. And when these younger people leave, they can threaten the life of the business itself. New thinking and strategies are required to ensure that businesses find out who knows what, understand how they know, create processes for transferring what they know, develop communities rather than stars and secure their future success by enabling business continuity.
For the past few decades this function has largely been delegated to ‘Knowledge Management’ (KM), who in turn thought of it primarily as a technology solution. The amount of raw information that has been captured but not properly utilised or transferred into companies is frightening (and, very often, overwhelming and confusing, and therefore fairly useless). It is time to move beyond KM to ‘Wisdom Management’. Wisdom is knowledge that is not time-bound or linked to specific experiences. Rather, it is transferable and has the ability to be used, adapted and applied wherever it is needed.
The problem is that wisdom can’t be bought. It takes time. Or does it?
We live in a world of constant change. In particular, the last decade has seen a dramatic increase in staff turnover and voluntary employee churn. This has been driven mainly by a younger generation who tend to move every three years on average – and move not just within industries, but to entirely different careers, on a regular basis.
In addition to the cost and difficulty of replacing these staff members, they often leave with critical expertise, information and relationships. These days, people in their 20s and 30s are very likely to have business critical expertise, and already be almost indispensable to the companies they work for. Gone are the days when supervisors and managers could fill in for a sick employee, and take over their work for a day or two. It is often the recent graduate who has the most technical expertise in professional firms. Managing the knowledge of these talented young people is one of the most under developed business continuity issues at present.
Yet, most companies do not have formal knowledge continuity processes in place.
Notwithstanding all we have said thus far, the most obvious place to start is to create a culture of knowledge transfer from the soon-to-be-retiring Boomers to the younger generations. Boomers have spent their careers changing the world and chasing their grand visions. They have been extremely focused and extraordinarily successful. But one of their huge weaknesses is their lack of mentorship ability. They battle to connect with the younger generation, let alone mentor them or entrust them with the future of their companies.
Probably the biggest barrier to this inter-generational knowledge transfer is that many senior people in companies operate at a level of ‘unconscious competence’. They operate from a ‘gut feel’ and on instinct, and do not even necessarily know how much they know about what they know. This must be one of the first steps in any knowledge continuity programme: to find out who knows what, and to help them uncover how it is that they know what they know. To put it another way, novices operate on the basis of rules, often relying on the application of codified knowledge. Experts operate at a level called heuristics, relying on experiential knowledge and not being constricted by simplistic rules. These heuristics must be captured and transferred if business genius is to be passed on. But these levels of experts don’t often know the heuristics they use, or are incapable of articulating them adequately to others.
In the past, this level of knowledge has passed from expert to novice through a lengthy process of observation, assimilation and osmosis. Some professions created apprenticeships or articles to assist the process. The transfer was made in the context of an expectation that the novice would take ten to twenty years to become an expert. But this is no longer the case. Because of changing technologies, young graduates have cutting edge information that leap frog them ahead of long-time experts – yet, they usually still lack wisdom. Yet, they’re not staying around for two decades to get it, and in an age of high churn, companies can’t afford to let wisdom transfer take as long as it used to. Luckily, there are new approaches to KM that allow us to fast track wisdom transfer.
It is not my intention in this brief article to recommend any specific process or methodology for knowledge continuity management, but rather to alert the reader to new realities that will impact any planning or implementation of a knowledge continuity programme. It needs to be much more than a technology or information systems solution. It involves the culture of the organisation. It involves all of the people in the organisation, but specifically focuses on talented staff, recognised experts and ‘gut feel’ geniuses – young and old.
There are many methodologies and systems emerging in the field of KM. The best of these understand that to assist people in uncovering their knowledge contribution, wisdom and heuristics, you must do more than simply collect and collate facts and data. Being able to collect experiential knowledge is equally critical. This typically involves a facilitated process in which the artefacts, experiences, skills, assumptions and frameworks of a person’s knowledge are recorded and indexed. These new approaches invariably emphasize the need to capture information in narrative format, thus providing context to data.
But simply capturing and storing this information is not enough. To have a truly effective knowledge continuity culture (rather than simply a knowledge management one), you need to create a ritualised culture of wisdom transfer. Traditional KM would focus on creating data delivery channels, but would not focus on establishing a culture in which knowledge transfer was prized and enjoyed.
And this is where we return to our initial thoughts about the younger generations. We tend to think of wisdom being passed down an organisation, but more and more often these days, it needs to be passed upwards, too. This can be a simple as ‘reverse mentoring’, but could include many more complex approaches to knowledge communities and wisdom sharing. New approaches to wisdom continuity also stress the need to transfer the wisdom from individuals to ‘communities’ (groups of individuals), thus minimising the risk of the loss of that knowledge.
Whatever methodologies companies employ, the fact is that they must do something. Knowledge continuity cannot be ignored, nor can it continue to be run as badly as most companies do it today. It is a business critical function, ensuring the continuity of your organisation in an age of constant change.