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Creating systems can help you save some of your most important knowledge.

Recently I was told a story about a department head at a university who suddenly passed away. She didn’t leave her predecessor any notes or slides. With her died a wealth of knowledge that will never be recovered. This challenge is common. Instead of death, organizations lose knowledge to promotion, retirement, downsizing and job changes. Each change comes with a decrease in knowledge in the organization. Managing people is a challenge in itself, trying to manage their knowledge is even more of a challenge.

There are few types of knowledge: explicit, which is easy to operationalize, and tacit, which is practical know how that cannot always be put into words. Explicit knowledge manifests itself as training, documents and ultimately is saved. Tacit knowledge is sand slipping through the fingers of those trying to capture it. It is not impossible to capture, but it is much more difficult. Capturing tacit knowledge takes the deliberate effort on all leadership levels. One of the best ways of capturing and distributing tacit knowledge is through mentoring. Mentoring allows learning to happen through consistent feedback loops, enhancing the customized learning with a personal hands on approach. Mentors may often provide opportunities that a manager might not be able to, they stimulate critical thinking, question and challenge thought processes, and give problem solving approaches seen through personal experience.

Mentoring may not be the most applicable route for all organizations, it can be financially and administratively costly. Despite these challenges the benefits are overwhelming. Returning to the original example, the new department head must now spend countless hours creating an entirely new program from scratch. How many hours would have been saved had that knowledge been captured? How much would the organization saved financially had they put a system in place? My gut tells me that the amount of energy needed to put a system in place would be much less than what is being spent now to rebuild.This story is not unique, my own experience allowed me an opportunity to see the what happens when one person left a team of 8 people. The repercussions were not nearly to the level of creating a whole new program, however the numerous documents and systems that had to be recreated was enlightening.

When is the best time to reflect on the challenge of capturing knowledge? I would venture to suggest the best time would be now, before something happens that would lead to a major loss. Taking a few moments as an organization to ask how you are managing your knowledge could save human capital, time and money. If you feel if the challenge is beyond you realize that you don’t have to create a new systems, there are expert systems in capturing knowledge. No matter how you do it, designing a system of capturing tacit knowledge is the strongest way of preventing the loss of human capital in economic times that are changing faster than they ever have before.

Written by Zach Murphy

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