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Institutional memory bank

Knowledge management tries to preserve lessons not taught in the company manual

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Print this page by Gary Robertson

Every day for the next two decades, about 10,000 baby boomers will reach the age of 65, according to Census data.

When they leave the workplace, the retiring baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — will take with them their institutional memories, their technical expertise, even their intuition and ability to find creative solutions to problems, garnered through years of life experiences, successes and failures.

It could be lost knowledge for the companies and institutions that employ them. And in an economy that’s increasingly being recognized as a “knowledge economy,” retaining intellectual capital is important to economic vitality.

MIT fellow David DeLong detailed the ramifications of the looming problem in his groundbreaking 2004 book, “Lost Knowledge:  Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce.”

Among other examples, DeLong noted that the early, and often forced, retirements of key engineers involved in America’s mission to the moon had left NASA without the institutional knowledge to put another man on the moon.  If NASA wanted to do that today, the agency would have to start from scratch, DeLong says.

Unless steps are taken to somehow capture and preserve the knowledge that baby boomers and others are taking out of the workplace — either through retirements or cutbacks to the work force — some experts predict that the outcomes could be dire. “I think that a lot of companies have their head in the ground on this. They know it’s an issue, but they don’t know how to handle it because it is such an issue,” says Clair Dorsey of Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

Dorsey is director of professional development in the Virginia Applied Technology and Professional Development Center at ODU’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology in Norfolk.

At the request of military representatives in Hampton Roads, Old Dominion created an 18-month certificate program in knowledge management. One goal of the discipline is to retain and preserve key information and experiences within an organization, so that lessons learned can be lessons remembered.

The first online class at ODU in the certificate program filled all of its available slots with military personnel and defense contractors from across the country. It graduated 20 students in October.
The next class in the spring is being recruited from military and civilian organizations. “In the future, I perceive that large companies who are facing a huge number of retirements in the next few years will have a knowledge manager just as they have a quality control manager,” Dorsey says.

Indeed, she says, the Army and Navy already are putting knowledge management officers in place to collect important information from future retirees. For example, someone always has to know how to disarm nuclear weapons.

To create its course, ODU drew from disciplines throughout the university — engineering, business, psychology and the arts, to name several.

Teaching through storytelling
Although some aspects of ODU’s Knowledge Management certificate programs involve hard skill sets such as data mining and classification, softer skill sets are also required. “One of the modules in the certificate program is storytelling,” Dorsey says. “A machine operator who has a manual and goes by the manual [finds] that certain nuances don’t get documented.

“Storytelling is a way to communicate how to do things other than writing it down in a manual. It’s not an engineering documentation type of thing; it’s interpersonal skills,” Dorsey says.

Bill Ermatinger is a man who thinks a lot about knowledge management, gathering statistics and data points, weighing options, stirring psychology and philosophy — even patriotism — into the mix as he contemplates the future and how it might be shaped.

He is corporate vice president and chief human resources officer of Newport News-based Huntington Ingalls Industries. Newport News Shipbuilding, a Huntington Ingalls division, is one of the largest employers in Virginia, with a payroll of 21,000.

All told, among all divisions, Ermatinger has 40,000 people to think about. And when the next order for an aircraft carrier or submarine arrives, he must have the workers who can build it.
But here’s the rub on the readiness of the current work force:  “Twenty-three percent can walk out whenever they want. They’ve earned it and deserve it,” Ermatinger says, speaking of the possibility of retirements.

He says one strategy in preserving experience and skill sets is simply to try to encourage people to stay, even if they have reached retirement age. By any measure, Huntington Ingalls has been doing a good job with that. In 2012, for example, the retirement rate for the company’s work force was 1.69 percent.

“A lot of my peers ask me, ‘What is the secret sauce?’ Well, this is it: I make sure that when employees come in the gates, they’re going to have a challenge, and they’ve always got that,” Ermatinger says.

A sense of purpose
Another part of the mix is to ensure that employees feel that what they’re doing contributes to something larger than themselves. They can see that whenever a submarine or aircraft carrier is under construction or being refitted in the shipyard.

Then there’s the patriotism and pride.

Here’s the mantra Huntington Ingalls tries to teach every worker, from welder to CEO:

  • We are America’s greatest shipbuilder.
  • We build the most complex and formidable machines on the planet.
  • We know our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, Mothers and Fathers, neighbors and friends take our ships into battle.
  • We never want an American to go into a fair fight.  We believe that our American military should never go into harm’s way without an overwhelming technological and capability advantage … such that a foe would see their significant disadvantage and choose flight or surrender instead.

But encouraging older workers to stay longer is not all there is to Knowledge Management.

“So, our macro-level institutional knowledge is to a great extent maintained in processes, procedures, work breakdown plans, integrated master plans and master schedules that guide and authorize work,” Ermatinger says.

Also important to the knowledge management equation are extensive internship programs, on-the-job training and high-quality mentoring.  Equally vital is having skilled leaders in supervisory and middle-management positions who can guide less-experienced workers.

While agreeing that it’s important to capture current institutional knowledge, Ermatinger says it’s just as important to know when such knowledge actually impedes the way toward further progress and advances.

Modern advances
Rafael Landaeta, who teaches the knowledge management certificate course at Old Dominion University, says that knowledge management, under different names, is not new.  “In reality, this process has been around forever … learning from our mistakes, learning from people who do great things, learning how to create knowledge by experiment,” Landaeta says.

“[But] we’ve made a lot of progress in different areas — psychology, business, engineering and management — that have enabled us to become better knowledge managers.”

Landaeta adds that advances in technology and a better understanding of how to accumulate, validate and transfer knowledge have also seen advances, from data mining to video capture.

One of the profound lessons of knowledge management, according to Landaeta, is that to advance toward an envisioned future any organization must carry with it the knowledge and experiences that it already has accumulated.

“If you don’t have the right knowledge at the right time,” Landaeta says, your glowing vision of the future might never be achieved. 

 


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