Friday 6 September 2019

Why leaving knowledge in people's heads is not a great strategy

The default approach to managing knowledge which many companies use, is to keep knowledge in people’s heads, and to move the knowledge where it is needed by moving the people, not by transferring the knowledge. 

In this old model, knowledge is owned and held by the experts and the experienced people. Knowledge is imported to projects by assigning experienced people as members of the project team.
Knowledge is transferred from site to site by transferring staff, and by using company experts who fly around the world from project to project, solving problems. Knowledge is stored for the long term in the heads of the experts.

This is a very traditional model, but it has many major failings, and cannot be considered to be effective knowledge management.  Imagine if you managed your finances in this way! Imagine if the only way to fund a project was to transfer a rich person onto the project team, or to fly individual millionaires around the world to inject funds into the projects they liked!

The major drawbacks of this default ‘knowledge in the heads’ approach are as follows:
  • Experienced people can only be on one project at a time, whereas knowledge management can spread that experience to many projects. 
  • Knowledge cannot be transferred until people are available for transfer. 
  • Experts who fly in and fly out often do not gain a good appreciation of how things are done, and where the good practices lie. In particular, teams in projects may hide their failings from the company experts, in order to be seen in a good light. 
  • The burn-out potential for these experts is very high. 
  • Knowledge can become almost ‘fossilised’ in the heads of the experts, who can end up applying the solutions of yesterday to the problems of today 
  • When the expert leaves, retires, has a heart attack, or is recruited by the competition, the knowledge goes with them. 
Unfortunately, for the experts and the experienced people, this can be an attractive model, and was stereotypical behaviour for specialist engineers for many years. It can be very exciting travelling the world, with everyone wanting your assistance. It is like early Hollywood movie scenes with the US Cavalry riding over the horizon to save the wagon train at the last minute. Knowledge management, however, would make sure that the wagon train did not get into trouble in the first place. As one experienced engineer said recently, ‘If you could fly off to some problem project, save the day and be a hero, or sit behind your desk and capture knowledge, what would you do?’

However if that engineer's knowledge had been more widely available, perhaps the project would not have become a problem in the first place.

Don't keep the knowledge in a few heads, spread it through the organisation instead.  Build communities of practice to store and share the knowledge. Document what you can in accessible, findable and digestible content. Change the role of the expert, from being the knowledge hodler, to becoming the facilitator and steward of the knowledge framework on their particular topic - ensuring that the organisation is knowledgeable, rather than being knowledgeable themselves.

If you are serious about knowledge, then don't leave it only in the heads of experts. 

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