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A story about Knowledge Management

Retain it, contain it and maintain it, by Noemi Ripert
Cliquer ici pour la version française

Today, Knowledge is one of the key factors for the success of businesses and to manage that Knowledge is probably one of the most common issues that organisations can face. How many companies are facing the loss of precious knowledge with employees departing for new ventures or simply because they are retiring? So how can a company retain this knowledge?

A few years ago I worked for the French Navy at the Naval Air Station in Hyeres (South of France) where I was commissioned to do research on Knowledge Management and to present it to the Commanders of each Helicopter Fleet positioned at this base. The aim of my assignment: to find a solution to retain this precious knowledge that seemed to leave far too quickly.

The problem that all these fleets were facing was that lots of specialised engineers and technicians were leaving their posts for civilian life to work in another industrial sector or quite simply, most of them were retiring. The need to keep and pass on the knowledge that only these people possessed, with all those years of experience, was just too important.

So, we put our heads together to try and find how we could just retain, contain and maintain on base this special knowledge and Know-How. Here is a summary of what we finally implemented.

Training and coaching: the people in need would receive specific training and coaching sessions. Preferably these sessions would be delivered by the experienced engineers or technicians themselves, working on base, to ensure the best direct transfer of knowledge from those who detain it. This way we could guarantee the practices were passed on effectively.

Shadowing: or teaming up the new comer with the old hand… This was probably one of the first and most simple steps to implement. The idea was that whoever needed to learn more about their craft could just shadow a more experienced technician or engineer whilst working and learning from him directly. The aim here is for that person to learn actively and hands on, in contrast to sitting through a training looking only at the theory. Ideally this step would come after the training and/or coaching sessions to put into practice what has been learnt.

Documenting: listing the good practices, opening a knowledge library and a data base accessible to all engineers and technicians. These actions would be probably the toughest ones to implement, through a long and never ending process. For this we needed to make sure that the most experienced technicians or engineers who possessed all the knowledge and know-how were available and, more importantly, keen to do the work. Getting them engaged to share and transfer what they knew, their unique skills, was key to our success here.

Making people aware of this “leak of Knowledge” was one big step forward. Little by little, more information was shared, working groups were formed, processes were developed and people were working together to manage that knowledge. Of course, not all solutions proposed to retain and manage the knowledge were successfully implemented at the time. But I would like to think that today; managing knowledge is a regular process and everyone’s focus in Hyeres. It is also reassuring to know that the knowledge and know-how is passed on, particularly in this instance for the pilots flying the helicopters!

The Four Quarter recipe

When it comes to managing and transferring knowledge, I use a simple recipe to maximize the chances of success. It doesn’t come from my Grand-Ma but from Charlélie Couture, a French musician and song writer, who said during an interview he gave in May 2001: “to succeed, you need one quarter of knowing, one quarter of doing, one quarter of knowing-how and one quarter of making it known”.

Charlélie’s recipe:

  • One quarter of Knowing: you need to have a complete and explicit understanding of the knowledge that is to be retained or shared. Informal or implicit knowledge is very hard to transfer in a reasonable period of time, meaning in less than 10 years.
  • One quarter of Doing: you need to constantly act upon the ones holding the knowledge to make sure they are and stay engaged to formalise and share everything they can.
  • One quarter of Know-How: the knowledge needs to be exercised and practiced in real environments by the apprentices. This part can also, in many cases, be codified. Then the learning becomes a routine, which is positive when it comes to best practices.
  • One quarter of Making it known: Keep informing about what exists to retain information in your organisation and even more about the risks of not doing so. Brag about every success and push forward every person supporting the knowledge transfer.

Let’s face it; knowledge management is not an easy task and surely not a simple recipe. I don’t believe it is a 100% full proofed science but maybe to make it efficient, it might be interesting to start valuing people also for the knowledge they share and not only for the knowledge they have (and keep for themselves).

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