Monday, 7 December 2020

Is Covid-induced remote working exposing Knowledge Management problems?

The surge in remote working triggered by Covid lockdowns is exposing the need for Knowledge Management, especially when it comes to tacit knowledge.

Image from wikimedia commons

That is the argument of an interesting article from the Irish Times entitled Covid taking a toll on companies’ reservoir of workplace knowledge, which claims that remote working during Covid has not harmed short term productivity, but has stifled longer term innovation.

The article is based on work by Prof Claire Gubbins from Dublin University, which compares what's happening during the pandemic with  knowledge loss after the 2008 recession. According to Gubbins;

“We know that between 70 and 90 per cent of learning in the workplace occurs through what people experience on the job and informally. This is because 90 per cent of the knowledge on which performance in real-world settings is based is tacit knowledge or knowledge that is not on paper or in manuals, but embedded in people’s heads. 
"During the post Celtic Tiger recession, organisations lost vast amounts of this tacit knowledge and suffered noticeable consequences. What’s happened (now) with remote working is that people with valuable tacit knowledge are no longer co-located and there is no informal access to the traditional social interactions at work that enable sharing and thus learning. Tacit knowledge is central to organisational competitiveness. Without it they suffer.”

The article also draws on a study by Microsoft (which they do not reference) which suggests that workplace productivity has not suffered due to remote working, but that innovation has suffered. Professor Gubbins relates this to the lack of informal tacit knowledge transfer when people are isolated at home.

“These findings are not surprising because innovation is grounded in social interaction and a combination of tacit knowledge sharing and new learning. The statistics show that formal training cannot replace that which is learnt informally and with increased remote working, social distancing in the workplace and fewer people in the office, the opportunities for these learning behaviours have been significantly reduced. Organisations need to be aware of this".

This of course is a tough situation. The informality of being side-by-side or face-to-face with a co-worker cannot be replicated at home. Interactions have to be mediated by technology, and have to become more planned and formal. Tacit knowledge transfer becomes something which has to be more planned and structured.

They key must be to program in these more social and tacit interactions, even if it is just a morning online catch-up which can spin off into side conversations. I certainly find I have my best conversations after scheduled zoom calls, when a couple of people stay on the line and chat. However there may be other approaches, for example:

  • providing newer staff, who do not have wide networks to call on, with defined mentors who can check in with them on a regular basis;
  • building communities of practice;
  • rationalising the channels for knowledge sharing, so people are not confused which channel to use;
  • appointing KM focal points in teams and departments, who can act as knowledge brokers.

The key is to recognise the risk, and do what you can to mitigate it. 



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