Capturing and implementing undocumented knowledge
Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) takes on the problems presented by the loss of experienced workers.
By Madeleine Gross
, Lewis Hanes
, and Thomas Ayres
SOCIETAL, demographic, and market forces have brought recent and ongoing changes to the workforce in the U.S. energy industry. The loss of highly knowledgeable managers and workers represents a growing problem in the energy enterprise, a situation also found in other industries and many government organizations.
Workforces are aging, expert knowledge and skills are being lost, and qualified replacements are increasingly difficult to find and retain. The loss or departure of undocumented knowledge associated with this situation can be particularly problematic with complex systems that have been in place for many years. Younger incoming staff are unlikely to have had education, training, or experience that is directly applicable to older technical systems. The unavailability of valuable knowledge, and, more specifically, tacit (or undocumented) knowledge (See Table I below), can have negative operational, environmental, safety, and economic consequences, since such knowledge is unique, known to one or a very few individuals or teams, and not available to others through procedures or normal training.
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Strategic Human Performance Program undertook during 1999-2001 a multi-faceted research project, “Capturing Undocumented Worker-Job-Knowledge.” The goals were to assess the problems related to this potential loss of tacit knowledge, to determine and assess possible approaches to deal with this loss, and to develop practical guidelines for use in energy industry settings. The main phases of the project work are described below, along with some conclusions and recommendations.
Initial interviews with energy industry personnel, as well as with persons from government, military, and other industry settings, confirmed the criticality of undocumented knowledge problems. They also demonstrated how knowledge loss is interwoven with broader issues of knowledge management and the aging of the workforce. Although many electric utilities have efforts in place to capture and store valuable knowledge before key employees leave, typically these activities involve capturing information in procedures or training programs and through job rotation. Mentoring, also a common industry approach, has been reduced by the pressure to minimize the number of employees.
The ultimate objective of this EPRI project, therefore, was defined as the delivery of a practical guidance document, including methods, techniques, and types of tools to consider for each step of the process (a process that would take advantage of site programs already in place), with the following aims:
- Identify managers and workers who possess potentially valuable undocumented knowledge.
- Evaluate the knowledge and determine if it is worth capturing.
- Elicit and store the valuable knowledge.
- Retrieve and present this knowledge to other personnel when needed.
A survey was conducted of management and supervisory staff from diverse utility settings. One finding was that nearly all respondents (92%) believed that loss of unique, valuable expertise would pose a problem within the next five years. But only 30% indicated a planning effort was in place to retain knowledge from experienced personnel and make it accessible and usable by new or replacement workers. Rather, methods frequently mentioned for dealing with departing personnel included: hiring outside contractors or consultants; searching for suitable replacements; using raises, promotions, or other incentives to induce departing workers to remain; and hiring employees back after they retire.
The EPRI project also involved a literature and background review, encompassing the areas of knowledge management, cognitive psychology, applied psychology, and artificial intelligence/expert systems. Based on the survey and literature review, a prototype process, suitable for field testing and for step-by-step elaboration based on such testing, was developed for capturing valuable undocumented knowledge.
The process provided guidance for identifying managers and workers who possess valuable undocumented knowledge and evaluating if such knowledge is worth capturing; and selecting and applying methods, techniques, and tools for eliciting, storing, retrieving, and presenting the valuable knowledge to other personnel when needed.
Testing the Prototype Process
Several approaches were selected for utility site testing. A number of tools and methods were considered for field evaluation. Examples include:
- Applied cognitive task analysis, including a specific knowledge audit approach--expertise is elicited, analyzed, and represented by trained elicitors.
- Critical incident and critical decision methods analysis.
- Lessons-learned documentation.
- Observation and encouragement of think-aloud protocols during actual work, simulation, or reconstructed scenarios (with collection of results by, for example, digital video recording).
Also explored were possible approaches for knowledge storage, retrieval, and/or presentation, including:
- Knowledge repositories.
- Concept maps--Perceived regularities in events or objects are defined as concepts and labeled. Maps (See Figure 1 below) represent their relationships with words describing the nature of the relationships. Concepts may have resources associated with them such as images, sounds, web pages, or other concept maps. Concept maps also can be used for knowledge elicitation.
- Communities of practice--A group of people whose work centers on a particular subject, who have similar job activities, and/or who work for a common goal, with agreement on a knowledge domain, willingness to share, and mechanisms such as a web portal (See Figure 2 below) for sharing.