We’re living in an era many historians are calling “The Information Age.” Rapid technological advancement, especially in computing, has made information the driving force behind social development. Data is everywhere — we’re bombarded by it constantly.
In 1986, the average human being was exposed to about 40 newspapers worth of information on a daily basis. Now the average person is exposed to 70 DVDs worth of information every day. It’s estimated that we’re exposed to more data in a single day than someone in the 15th century would encounter in their entire lifetime.
Not only is the amount of accessible information increasing, but the rate at which we’re discovering and creating new things is too. Up until the year 1900, human knowledge doubled every 100 years. IBM believes that by 2020, it will double every 12 hours. According to Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.
The decay of knowledge
But the relevance of information doesn’t last forever. Facts have a half-life. Things we learn eventually become irrelevant, outdated, or disproven. A century ago, it would take 35 years for half of what an engineer learned when earning their degree to be disproved or replaced. Now, the half-life of an engineering degree is estimated to be 2 years. And this doesn’t just apply to the notoriously fast-moving field of technology. Even in the sciences, knowledge is becoming outdated. Because the need for specialized knowledge has increased so much and the instrumentation has grown so complex, careers of scientists are shrinking across multiple fields of study.
Organizations are feeling the rot
Age also takes knowledge out of the workforce. The oldest and second-largest generation of working Americans, the Baby Boomers, are retiring at a rate of 10,000 people per day. Business leaders are struggling to cope with the knowledge and skills gap these retirees are leaving in their wake.
Failing to maintain knowledge or learn from past mistakes has proven disastrous for many organizations. In 2005, a series of mistakes and equipment failings caused a blast at a BP refinery in Texas that killed 15 people and cost the company $2 billion in settlements. Accidents happen and it was a painful lesson for the company to learn — only the learning appears to have been short-lived. Less than five years later, a nearly identical blast occurred on the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killing 11 people and costing the company over $65 billion.
In the future, the most successful companies will be the ones that not only gather and analyze data but also can effectively maintain, transfer, and update knowledge over time.
The different kinds of knowledge
There are different kinds of knowledge organizations need to grow, transfer, and maintain:
- Explicit knowledge (knowing “that”)
This is knowledge that is easy to define, identify, share and store. It usually takes the form of documentation but can also exist in the form of audio recordings, videos, animations, and graphics.
- Tacit knowledge (knowing “how” and “why”)
This is knowledge gained through experience. It’s collected wisdom and insight. Difficult to codify and articulate, this knowledge may also require context and interpretation.
Another way to categorize knowledge is to divide it into the three discrete forms it can take within an organization:
- Conscious knowledge
These are the things employees know that they know — things like methods, processes, etc.
- Unconscious knowledge
Unconscious knowledge is knowledge employees have but are not aware of, even if they actively use it.
- Recorded knowledge
This is knowledge that has been captured in some sort of accessible and tangible form.
Why organizations fail at knowledge transfer
For knowledge to move freely between these states, ultimately ending up in a format that can be used and accessed by everyone in the organization, it must be transmitted in different ways and through a variety of means:
(Source: Nick Milton)
More often than not though, the institutional transfer of knowledge is ineffective, inefficient, and met with resistance. Some of the most common reasons include:
1. It’s not documented and/or reviewed
As discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus, humans begin to forget information days or even hours after hearing it.
A wide range of factors affect memory recall including attention, motivation, the format in which the information was presented, and the complexity of the material, but the rate of decay remains relatively consistent.
2. It’s only done on a 1-to-1 basis
When one employee shares knowledge with another, only one person benefits. There may be several people within the org or even on the team that could benefit from those insights, but all of that time and effort has only been used to educate one person.
Also, once people receive the information they want or need, the process usually stops there and is rarely revisited. The problem or issue that caused the need for that information is only really known and understood by the person with the knowledge and the person who asked. This leaves little room for redundancies or safeguards to prevent a knowledge gap from forming.
3. It’s disruptive
When knowledge is siloed to only a few experts within an organization, there is rarely an orderly process for others to receive their insights. Instead, those with the knowledge must be interrupted each time a new request for knowledge is made. Not only is this disruptive, it piles on tedious and repetitive work for the knowledge holders. Without a system to capture and transfer their knowledge, these experts must repeat information over and over. It takes time to pass on knowledge effectively to others.
Burdened by being the sole possessors of insights, these experts may spend most of their day in meetings, on phone calls, or sending emails instead of doing more impactful work. This poor use of time prevents orgs from getting the full value from their top employees and increases the likelihood of burnout.
4. It’s not updated or repeated
Without a dedicated system or accountable parties, documented knowledge is not regularly “pruned.” As company knowledge bases grow inaccurate or outdated, distrust develops, which causes most employees to stop using them. Those who do continue to use these tools may pass on incorrect information to clients, customers, and partners that could potentially damage relationships and the reputation of the company. If these tools are not regularly audited and updated, people waste hours trying to track down information that doesn’t exist or is no longer beneficial.
How organizations can manage the decay of knowledge and keep learning:
1. Cultivate a learning culture that embraces feedback
Focus on building what’s called a learning organization — a company that facilitates the continually learning of its workforce. This can require a complete culture shift and must have executive buy-in to be truly successful.
According to Google’s Project Aristotle, the number one trait successful teams have in common is psychological safety. When teams feel they have the support and freedom to experiment, innovation is the result. There’s a direct link between innovation and embracing failure.
Cultivate a growth mindset and make everything, even failure, a learning opportunity. While it’s true that your org may face increasing expectations as it scales, you can strike a balance between experimentation and adhering to tried-and-true processes that will mitigate risk and promote consistent results.
Feedback is one of the most important tools for learning and should flow freely within your company. Be open to feedback and build systems to manage and deliver that feedback up throughout the org. Every person in the company, from the CEO down to interns, should feel free to give and, most importantly, receive feedback.
Lastly, engage in consistent experimentation. Tactics, strategies and processes all have half-lifes too. They lose effectiveness over time. If you aren’t regularly evaluating your ROI, you could fall into the “this is how we’ve always done it” trap.
De-risk through adaptive experimentation. By having multiple experiments running at any single time, you magnify your ability to learn and understand what is actually having an impact. You’re also able to quickly course-correct and pursue right answers faster, helping your organization remain nimble and stay in front of the competition.
2. Share insights across teams and departments
Organizations that prioritize and have mastered the ability to transfer knowledge are not only more productive but also more resilient. They’re able to weather storms that crush their competition.
While documentation, knowledge bases, and other tools are a great start, person-to-person contact is one of the most effective forms of knowledge transfer. Here are a few of the most common ways this can take place:
- Job shadowing: Pairing new employees with experienced ones in a formal setting can help transfer explicit knowledge without disrupting the experienced employee. Through observation and direct conversations, new employees or employees of other departments can learn what a role entails and how it impacts the organization. The employees being shadowed also benefit by improving their communication skills and developing new relationships within the team or company.
- Coaching and mentoring: Whether you institute formal coaching sessions or informal chats, mentoring is a great way to encourage experienced members of the team to share insights with new members. Personal coaching and mentoring is usually limited to 1-1 sessions but has been linked to higher rates of productivity, greater retention of knowledge, increased fulfillment, and reduced onboarding and training costs.Coaching and mentoring don’t have to be limited within a team or department. Veteran employees can have a hand in sharing insights and institutional knowledge with employees across the organization, giving them a more holistic view of how their work impacts the whole.
- Lunch talks: Eating lunch together while bringing in an internal or external expert is a great way to train your team and boost morale at the same time. Invite experienced employees, consultants, or outside experts to educate your team on topics related to their roles and have them share experiences of difficult situations they were able to successfully navigate. This relaxed atmosphere promotes both learning and camaraderie and will help your team feel free to ask questions without judgment.
- Debriefs: After positive events like tradeshows or product releases, or even negative ones like accidents or failures, a debrief can be a great opportunity to learn as a team. Take the time to examine what went well and what could have been better without judgment or accusations. Identify, as a group, ways the organization can better navigate complex situations and establish or revise processes and policies. Even the worst situations can have positive outcomes when the focus is on learning. By including people who were not directly involved in the discussion, you can instill those learnings into your organization’s collective DNA.
3. Invest in a collaborative work management tool
Communication tools allow employees to form connections with each other and relay information and data. But these tools can’t replace a robust “single source of truth” where knowledge can be stored, maintained, prioritized, and shared. The transfer of knowledge in most communication tools is momentary, limited, and inflexible:
Synchronous and asynchronous communication
Chat apps are fantastic tools for synchronous communication. When everyone is together, even digitally, they can build on each other’s thoughts and ideas in real time. These tools fall short when it comes to asynchronous communication. When people are logging on and off across time zones or even countries, it’s nearly impossible to catch up on how discussions have evolved and meaningfully contribute in a timely fashion.
One-to-many vs. many-to-many communication
Email is one of the greatest one-to-many communication tools ever invented. A single person can easily and effectively transmit information to an essentially unlimited number of people. But email is a terrible many-to-many communication tool. A single email message can devolve into multiple threads that may or may not incorporate all recipients. Context is easily lost, and conversations can be confusing to manage. Knowledge transfer requires multiple contributors to weigh in on subjects efficiently.
(Shared) Knowledge is power
Yes, the world is moving fast and doesn’t show any signs of slowing. Being able to learn and share insights among everyone in your organization is quickly becoming a key competitive advantage. Having the right tools and processes in place will help your company maintain and update collective insights and share those learnings with the entire organization.
Our team partners with 20,000 of the world’s most innovative organizations, harnessing insights and using them to continually shape and refine the Wrike platform. This consistent learning and collaboration with industry-leading teams keeps us miles ahead of the competition and ensures our users are armed with the latest best practices and tools.
Are you ready to see what the Wrike platform can do for your organization? Start a free trial today.
This article originally appeared on Wrike.com.
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