The Art of Knowledge
Finding a Cure for Institutional Alzheimer's (or How Do We Jog the Collective Memory of the Enterprise?)
Bret's last post got me thinking about institutional memory loss and the frustration it has caused me both as an employee who has left an organization and as one that was left behind.
Knowledge loss is most evident at times when employees are leaving or joining new organizations. Anyone who has ever tried to train a new employee, only to realize that the information they need to accurately train the employee walked out the door two weeks ago, can attest to the waste of resources this causes. How do we avoid these proverbial ghost ships passing in the night? I think any useful analysis of this problem must begin with an acknowledgement that addressing this issue at the time an employee has chosen to leave is already to late. The employee on her way in, will never have a "meeting of the minds" with a departing employee. We must examine how to ensure that, while the two will never meet in any meaningful manner, their ideas, vantage points and worldviews might have a significant interaction.
I have learned from my own experience and from working with young and talented co workers that most employees are dying to share their unique experiences and expertise with others while still on the job. Yet, despite this willingness to share, organizations have never understood how to elicit and capture this information in a manner that is viable. This happens, I believe for several reasons. The first reason is due to the manner in which organizations attempt to capture data. Many organizations idea of capturing data is to send out elaborate forms. These forms often capture what the organization deems to be important, but often does not mesh with the employees' idea of what is relevant. After slogging through a 5 page form, the employee comes face to face with the "additional information" comments box and leaves it blank. The disconnect between the goal of the form and the goal of the employee causes many employees to withhold information.
Secondly, questionnaires and their answers, usually disappear into the ether of Human Resources or the CEO's task force on workplace performance and never see the light of day, or at the very least, never get repackaged in a manner that gives employees an understanding of where their views have had an impact.
Lastly, questionnaires and other inflexible methods of eliciting feedback become extra work. Employees may love their jobs, but if the process for reflection and knowledge sharing imposes an additional burden without any tangible benefits, employees will resist.
Two things stand out immediately when thinking about the requirements for creating a process of knowledge sharing that fosters institutional memory. First, it must be part of the culture of an organization. Culture is a classic "weasel word" in many organizations that serves as a proxy for "company spirit" or "Friday afternoon trust building games." But if we are to aspire to a collective memory, we must seek to foster a group heart. This collective value system, wherein individuals agree that certain goals are important to succeed as a group, is essential if we are to develop a memory that can survive the loss of some of the individuals. In order to "jog our institutional memory," we must have a culture that values sharing data. It must be a core principle that is expected and respected. It should be tied to compensation and promotions in same manner as all other indicia of successful job performance.
Secondly, any software or other technology that is introduced into the organization for purposes of aiding institutional memory must fit seamlessly into the world of work. Of course this may require changes in the way employees complete their tasks, but it must be natural and provide benefits that outweigh any burdens of the system. The single most important feature of any system should be feedback. Nothing will encourage an employee to share knowledge like the awareness that others are reading, using and reacting to his or her ideas. Ask any blogger what gets them excited about posting and most of them will tell you that the knowledge that others are reading and responding to their ideas is a key factor. Unleashing this positive feedback loop in an organization can quickly become addictive and will encourage sharing.
Any technical solution must be easy to use - Flexibility is key. If you force employees to fit their information into predetermined silos of data, the system will fail. The system must be designed with the users, not the DBA in mind. A good system will have no more input fields than your average blog. A date stamped post with a topic and possibly a overarching category is the most data an employee can be bothered to fill out. The rest of the work must be done on the back end. It is here, on the back end, where a useful system will provide some of the most valuable data.
In the end, work is about relationships. This system must be able to track these relationships in such a manner that anyone tapping into the system can determine the network of people that are most likely to have the information that is sought. If the system can draw relationship maps based on links and comments by author, topic and frequency (think Technorati on crack), it could prove invaluable. Such a system could easily assist a new employee in getting up to speed. By spending a week reviewing the knowledge logs of a departed employee, a new member of the team could get up to speed on the topics of expertise of the departed employee, as well as any projects he or she was working on, and easily and intuitively identify the most relevant communities to associate with for additional information.
Just a thought.
Link posted by michael : 9:21 PM