Don't fear lost knowledge through employee departures—build a foundation of knowledge management to realize business goals.
It's inevitable. People will leave an organization. It has happened before, and it will happen again. Sometimes they will take with them that thing that is so precious and hard to replace: the deep knowledge they have gained about how to create the results the company requires. And even though it has happened before, companies are afraid.
Where is the root of this fear? Is it the notion that the knowledge is irreplaceable? Is it the sense that there will be a gap in some part of the organization's understanding of how success is created? Is it the nagging memory of how hard it was to build that knowledge—the time, the mistakes, the trials, the errors? Or is it the combination of these and more?
In my experience, it is all of these things wrapped up in the idea that "we don't know what we know." When some of that knowledge heads for the door, companies are consumed by the fear of what part of their overall organizational knowledge is leaving. They fear the loss and grieve for what they are missing without ever having fully known it.
Unfortunately, this has only worsened. As the workforce has become more mobile and the speed of business has increased, the talent cycle has been compressed. The days of long onboarding, apprenticeships, and the slow acquisition, development, and internalization of critical knowledge are past. Where once knowledge was assembled by subject, with efforts constrained by form (think books, libraries, reference manuals), now is a world of fingertip information to build from: smartphones, Google, internal and external databases, and information servers and services. Acquiring knowledge has become an exercise measured in quarters, months, and even weeks.
Add to this immediacy that the information underpinning that knowledge is no longer bound by form or limited to experts' deep experience. Technology and a fluid workforce have liberated knowledge—and that comes at a cost. If critical knowledge is no longer constrained by form or bound to the high priests of experience, which companies have counted on, then how can they manage it? Therein lies the heart of discontent.
Data, information, and knowledge are unequal
What do data, information, and knowledge mean? People often use these words interchangeably, but the reality is that while they are related, they are not the same. And they are certainly not equally important to companies.
Let's begin with data. Data can be thought of as the building blocks—the components of information. Data are the facts in the world, the parts and pieces that can be stored, and they are governed by people's direct interaction. People and companies experience data. Take, for instance, a spreadsheet: An individual directly experiences the number in the cell on that sheet.
This leads to information. That same sheet or workbook is information—it is data captured and arranged so that people can share it and move it around. The spreadsheet may have errors or missing data, but this is still information.
What about knowledge? This is the real challenge. Knowledge is the map people construct that enables them to make decisions and take actions. Information, data, and beliefs enable people to construct and constantly alter knowledge. That is why knowledge is so critical to organizations' success: They can capture and store the manifestations of knowledge but not the actual knowledge.
In this figure, data and information play a foundational role in people's interactions and experiences. That knowledge, in turn, forms the basis for their beliefs and is essentially a road map for interpreting their world. People's beliefs frame their choices and direct their actions.
It should be easy to see that companies' efforts around managing knowledge must go beyond managing data or information alone. They must somehow capture the knowledge map itself. That knowledge is not a one-dimensional factor to manage but rather a complex fabric that must be woven through organizational culture. It's a fabric that connects facts with experiences to frame the choices that drive the performance companies require.
Why we fall short
Given this explanation of knowledge, it is easy to see why so many attempts at knowledge management fall far short or fail outright. Capturing data as information may be straightforward, but building the mental map—the knowledge—is a kind of alchemy beyond the typical linear IT systems.
Studies show that the most significant limitations to knowledge management are not technology-based but rather such factors as trust, incentives, organizational culture, leadership support, and diversity. Managing knowledge, then, is less of an activity around specific systems to manage and organize information (although this is necessary but insufficient) and more of an activity around creating experiences and interactions that allow rapid transfer (where possible) and assimilation (where practical) of the knowledge (mental maps) essential to the companies' success.
All the information-sharing in the world will not help people overcome the gap that exists in the hierarchy between data and action. They can't jump from experiencing data in the form of information to reliably, accurately performing (actions and outcomes).
It's about performance
The only real value of managing knowledge is the connection it has to driving organizational results. Unless a company takes the "art for art's sake" stance—in this case, knowledge for knowledge's sake—this is the only reasonable proposition.
Now the question is: Where does knowledge (and by extension, the management thereof) fit into performance? The answer is simple. It's all about outcomes.
Consider the framework of the Association for Talent Development's Human Performance Improvement Model. The ultimate success of the performance chain, and therefore the organization's desired result, lies within the employee's ability to take the appropriate actions in the service of individual and organizational processes to produce outcomes that enable the organization to reach its goals.
Let's break this down. The employee must possess some set of rules, internal framework, or map that serves as a Rosetta Stone of sorts in the daily flow of information and activity. This knowledge critically enables the individual's performance by arming her with the correct interpretation of information. That's what is important. While it may be interesting to know that a company has a database of 10 million users' data, what's compelling and valuable to deploy is the knowledge of how to make choices that will monetize that information.
Just as with data and information, not all knowledge is valuable. Some may have been valuable in the context of a different business climate, some when corporate culture was different, and some when technologies couldn't arrange the data into information in the same manner as today. To manage knowledge effectively, companies must give knowledge temporal context. How does this knowledge align with the company's current goals, workforce, technologies, business environment, and culture? A physician's knowledge from 20 years ago would not be as valuable to a patient, even if the information about human physiology has not changed.
A new paradigm for managing knowledge
So, what should companies do about all of this?
The world has changed. The nature (form and arrangement) of information has changed. The speed of people's experiences, interactions, and formation of beliefs have all changed. Now it's time to change attitudes and approaches to managing knowledge.
First, they should begin with a framework: Learn-Do-Share. Using this scaffolding, companies can build the context for knowledge management that encompasses the three key elements that connect their organizational knowledge to the realization of their business goals: what people need to internalize (learn or build the map); what they need to do to achieve the required outcomes; and what they must share back to continuously evolve the organization's knowledge base.
As companies think about their knowledge life cycle, they must first determine their knowledge needs and knowledge inventory. They can begin by examining their critical roles and defining them in terms of outcomes. For example, what are the necessary accomplishments for X role that enable business success? The importance of beginning here cannot be overstated. Defining critical roles by outcomes provides companies with the organizing principle upon which to build all their knowledge management efforts.
Next, companies need to scrub this inventory and ask questions like, "Is this helping us or limiting us?" and "How does this frame the right choices?" As they scrub their knowledge inventory, they also will need to contextualize and temporize it. Are certain elements only relevant within a narrow group? Are there aspects that have outlived (or soon will outlive) their usefulness?
This will result in companies achieving a clear understanding of how they create value (outcomes) where knowledge supports or frames the right activity and how that knowledge is acquired in the context of the work and the organizations' culture.
Armed with this information, companies can then make decisions: What experiences can they build, provide, or incentivize to accelerate the learn element of the Learn-Do-Share framework? How can they embed elements of the map into processes and technologies to support the application of knowledge? And how can they create and enable systems and cultural biases that help and encourage employees to share knowledge innovations and acquisitions?
In the end, managing knowledge is, like many aspects of the "people business," part art and part science (and usually not in equal measure). Knowledge management requires persistent and consistent effort—done well, it will also accelerate organizations' abilities to achieve.
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.