In the third of her series exploring the findings from the five components of the Adecco Institute’s ‘Demographic Fitness Survey’, Donna Murphy takes a look at knowledge management and finds that many UK organisations are still lacking in this discipline.
Judging from the results of the ‘Adecco Demographic Fitness Survey’, most firms don’t know where to find knowledge. In late 2007, the Adecco Institute conducted a survey across the five big European economies (the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) to assess whether organisations are preparing for a workforce that is increasingly comprised of older workers.
One of the dimensions surveyed was knowledge management, or how well a firm tracked business-critical and company-specific knowledge. The UK performed worse than the European average: 31% of firms in the ‘big five’ claim to have conducted a full and complete analysis to identify the holders of business-critical knowledge in their firm. Only 18% of UK firms made the same claim. Only 25% of British firms have conducted an analysis of the risk of lost knowledge when individual employees leave – compared to 30% of firms in the big five.
Can we really afford to have such a disinterested attitude to all the key knowledge that we rely on to run our companies? Knowledge management is the discipline of managing business-critical knowledge, and it’s an area of expertise sorely lacking in British firms. One of the underlying reasons is that knowledge management as a discipline hasn’t truly mobilised in the business world, leaving companies with few effective tools to assist the process. But any firm who has lost a key employee understands the imperative of knowledge management – companies need to track where key knowledge resides, establish formal knowledge-sharing processes, raise awareness of who ‘knowledge holders’ are, and understand how knowledge is propagated and extended in their organisations.
When staff members leave, we lose vital expertise – explicit knowledge, such as how a product or process works, as well as implicit knowledge embedded in customer relationships, internal networks and firm culture and values. All of these can affect our ability to produce, innovate and compete. We can renew and retain these critical ‘intangibles’ by implementing a systematic approach to knowledge management and improving awareness of people’s know-how and experience. Only 36% of British companies feel they have a strong understanding of who holds company-specific technical knowledge (vs. 45% of big five companies), and even fewer have fully assessed the risk of loss when individual employees leave.
Impacted by converging forces
We surveyed the use of 12 different knowledge management tools in UK companies – tools ranging from customer relationship management systems to the use of external consultants. On average, UK firms offered six of the 12 tools analyzed. However, only a third of employees used these tools. So firms are impacted by three converging forces: few robust tools, lack of employee engagement, and limited appreciation of the need for knowledge management.
What should we as HR managers do? First, we have to recognise that we have to do more than just start adopting tools – we have to encourage employees to use the tools. One simple way to start is to build an internal directory of key knowledge holders, and what knowledge they have – 32% of British firms already do this.
To engage employees in the process, encourage them to contribute – invite employees to publish information about their areas of expertise, areas of knowledge, and areas of interest. Recognise your key knowledge holders, either formally or informally. You can take it a step further by establishing online forums where employees can exchange information, inculcating into the firm the value of sharing knowledge and recognising knowledge holders (only 27% of British firms do this today).
These are two relatively low-cost ways to get the information out into the open. Building mixed-age teams can also help – teams are likely to quickly establish who knows what, and when the information is broadly shared, the risk of being caught unawares when knowledge walks away is limited.
When knowledge is shared, everyone’s ability to contribute to solutions increases, and thus the firm’s ability to identify innovative solutions to bigger problems increases. Very often employees are eager and willing to contribute to problem-solving, but lack a platform to do so. Sometimes employees are unaware that a problem even exists until it becomes so big that it isn’t easily solved. We can nip more problems in the bud by opening up the problem solving to the wealth of knowledge that our employees have – and both increase our knowledge of ‘who knows what’ and improve our own ability to innovate and compete.
We generally recognise that innovation is the lifeblood of firms today, but we are vague on how to foster or promote it. In this case, the answer lies in valuing your company’s knowledge and your knowledge holders, and establishing procedures to codify that knowledge.
In an era when job-loyalty is on the decline, job-hopping is on the rise, and more and more senior staff members are looking forward to retirement, every company needs to embrace knowledge management as a means to protect that asset that really keeps your company going – your own intellectual capital.