Capturing and implementing undocumented knowledge
Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) takes on the problems presented by the loss of experienced workers.
FIGURE 1: CONCEPT MAP
Useful for knowledge elicitation as well as storage, concept maps show the relationships among perceived regularities in events or objects (concepts). This high-level map is for decontamination in a nuclear power generation facility.
OVER A three-year period we performed background work, development of a prototype process, and site testing to support further refinement and elaboration of the guidelines. The guidelines consisted of both a process to follow and the knowledge elicitation methods. During the final stages of this project, the process and selected methods were implemented and tested at four utility sites with 20 workers/teams representing a range of organizations and work types.
The final guidance report was developed incorporating enhancements of the prototype process and selected methods based on these field test results. Some of the many important lessons that were learned during the development of the final guidelines are discussed below.
FIGURE 2: PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
A Community of Practice is 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 for sharing among themselves and outside the community. Source: Price & Mynett, IHE Delft
Identify the Experts
An initial activity is to identify key employees who may be leaving their current jobs for whatever reasons, or may have knowledge so valuable that it should be available to others when they are absent due to travel, vacation, illness, etc. Methods to identify these key employees may range from simply asking managers to identify key employees to periodic corporate-wide workforce surveys.
Some considerations include:
- Individuals who are recognized by his/her or other managers and peers as being the only expert about something of high importance, or one of only a few local site experts.
- Individuals with expertise in handling rare or infrequent events (e.g., repair of a unit that fails on average once every 10 years, or handling extensive repairs necessitated by a hurricane in areas not normally experiencing hurricanes).
- Individuals with expertise for systems, etc., that are going to be replaced with different technology involving different skills (e.g., "old" computer system being replaced about the same time the expert on that system retires)--these skills need not be maintained.
Following identification of the experts, it is important to determine if these workers are willing to permit their valuable tacit knowledge to be elicited and made available to others.
Many workers are willing--and in some cases, eager--to share their knowledge, and for a variety of reasons. A worker may view it as an honor to be recognized as an expert. Others may feel an obligation to share their valuable knowledge with others because of the benefits received during their careers, or because it is the right thing to do. Others may participate because their manager has asked them and made time available. It is simply part of the job. It has been found, however, that some workers (about 10%) are not willing to share their expertise for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons include:
- Knowledge is viewed as an individual's intellectual property, and may be used by that person as a basis for consulting work or another job.
- Fear of layoff because of the perception that the unique knowledge provides job protection, and making it available to others may increase vulnerability.
- Alienation against the company for some real or imagined reason (e.g., lower than expected salary increase or being passed over for promotion).
- Belief that he/she does not possess any valuable knowledge, even though the person has been selected as an expert.
- Expectation that elicited knowledge will “go into a file cabinet and never be seen again,” thus wasting the time of the expert (may be based on previous experience at company).
- Current work assignments leave no time available to participate in knowledge elicitation.
- Fear of loss of status because he/she no longer will be recognized as the expert in the organization.
Develop a Plan
A plan should be prepared to elicit, store, and retrieve valuable undocumented knowledge from each person selected. The plan should identify the specific knowledge elicitation methods selected for each expert or group of experts with similar skills, define the methods for storage, and describe how the stored knowledge will be retrieved.
Development of this plan will require consideration of a number of factors, such as types of knowledge, availability of the departing expert, and capabilities and resources of the personnel responsible for knowledge elicitation.
Most utilities already have programs to capture and disseminate expert-worker knowledge. For example, most companies have training groups and programs, procedure groups, human resources organizations, etc., that routinely identify, collect, and disseminate important information. In addition, some companies have effective mentoring, apprentice, job rotation, and cross-training programs.
To the extent feasible, existing resources and infrastructure should be used to collect and disseminate valuable undocumented knowledge. Thus, time and costs to initiate a new program may be minimized. In fact, in many organizations, a very important step will be to assign an existing department, group, or individual with the responsibility for any expanded undocumented knowledge capture efforts.