Knowledge Retention or Knowledge Assurance?


Knowledge retention and the problems of knowledge loss from an aging workforce have been in the air recently. Matt Moore has a good summary of the discussion on actKM and some other useful links, including the very public spirited exposure of the knowledge retention strategy of Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The astute Matt concludes that the panicky “Oh my God, they’re leaving next week, let’s interview everyone” approach is probably ineffective, but an opportunity to start something more sustainable and long term. Hence the value of the TVA link.

Kim Sbarcea blogged in the same week on quite a different form of knowledge retention problem, the loss of records from NASA’s moon landing – tapes of the original video recording of the first moonwalk, which apparently were never broadcast in their full quality, and have now disappeared in a poor recordkeeping chain of control. NASA, it seems, is a good punching bag for knowledge retention advocates: a high profile public agency that has been around for long enough to lose both tacit and explicit knowledge assets in noticeable numbers. David DeLong’s must-read book on this topic Lost Knowledge starts with NASA’s inability to recreate the technology that originally got them to the moon, because they’d lost the expertise of the people who originally built it.

Knowledge loss interests me particularly because it’s one source of organisational ignorance. But I’m beginning to think that “knowledge retention” is not the best descriptor to use – because it’s essentially backward looking and conservative, and assumes that keeping all your knowledge is necessarily a good thing. I recall from a previous discussion on this topic on actKM, Matt Moore cheekily remarked (paraphrasing from memory), “sometimes you want that experience to walk out the door, it frees you up to innovate”.

So “knowledge assurance” seems to me a better phrase to use, because it’s forward looking, looks at anticipated knowledge needs, is open to new knowledge needs, identifies both risks and opportunities, directs us to think about how critical knowledge gets regenerated in new people as well as slowing down the departure of knowledge-holding employees or simplistically focusing us on “documenting” what they know before they go.

This broader perspective makes it much clearer that we need to put in place a portfolio of strategies to strengthen the internal web of knowledge – eg through both targeted and diffuse knowledge transfer interventions, sharing processes and platforms, communities, mentoring and coaching, talent attraction and recruitment, training, storytelling, apprenticeships and experimentation, succession planning, planned experience building, embedding expertise into process and yes (sorry Dave) even writing recipes. Some of it is about ensuring the flow of knowledge is sufficiently active to maintain a healthy “knowledge reservoir” within the social group; some about creating more easily transferred knowledge assets.

Even in the “harder” domain of records management, the overwhelming bulge of digital information that organisations now create must compel a triage of sorts: and this triage must be as much about prioritising based on our (and our successors’ ) anticipated future need for a document, as about whether it illuminates an important event. As Shawn Callahan says (in my personal blog quote of the week) “time is a continuum not a category”. Looking after our knowledge is not just about keeping the stuff we have or the stuff from the past. It’s also about seeing ourselves as responsible for our future.

3 Comments so far

Dale Arseneault

I agree that “knowledge assurance” is a better term than transfer, mostly because it does not overly objectify knowledge, and better balences “sender” and “receiver.” What I mean is that many KM perspectives, like many communications and training initiatives, are more about what the knowledge / information holder wants to transmit or tell to someone else.  The receiver, or dare I say “learner,” is often neglected, yet that individual or group is absolutely critical, as they decide what knowledge and information has validity, value, and applicabiilty to their work. I think focusing on the learner / receiver / consumer more helps guide better decisions on what to keep / throw away / make available focus on / develop etc.

Posted on August 10, 2007 at 03:45 AM | Comment permalink

Mark Schenk

Thanks for a good summary. I agree the term knowledge retention has its limitations, but so does knowledge assurance - it reminds me of ‘quality assurance’ whereby someone remote from the process judges compliance and (very rarely) adequacy. Of course, its the discussion that’s useful and if we get a useful label as a result - great. Dale’s point about focussing on the ‘receiver’ rather than the ‘transmitter’ is a good one.

Posted on August 11, 2007 at 09:18 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Thanks guys, with Mark I like your perspective on the learner and the proess of knowledge acquisition.... which does not just have to come via the existing “knowers”, by the way.

I hadn’t thought of that perspective on the term “assurance” Mark, but I agree it’s a risk. Can you think of a better term? For a while I considered “sustainability” but that too seemed too much about conserving existing knowledge, and not sufficiently oriented towards new knowledge needs.

Posted on August 11, 2007 at 09:30 AM | Comment permalink

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