Knowledge Management Protects Against Mission-Critical Knowledge Loss

The cost of poor company knowledge management is high and getting higher. On the other hand, organizations that embrace effective knowledge management processes have a competitive advantage. Effective knowledge management practices can prevent embarrassments like the one recently faced by AIG, when the CEO argued that large bonuses were needed to retain key employees who wrote financially binding contracts so complex that only they understood them.

Few power generating companies have procedures in place to facilitate knowledge transfer, so employee turnover erodes organizational knowledge. The loss of industry and institutional knowledge can reduce productivity and may mean a loss of market position in a very competitive market.

Electric and natural gas utilities are looking at upwards of 45% of the workforce reaching retirement age within the next six to seven years. This does not mean that all who are eligible will retire, but many will. Managing knowledge is more difficult, and more important, when organizations face layoffs and the scarcity of trained, qualified workers, as is the case in the power generation industry.

Managing Explicit and Tacit Knowledge

Knowledge management is the practice of using proven tools and approaches to locate, refine, transfer, and apply the knowledge and experience available to a company. Knowledge management is not just about information systems and information technology. It’s also about the social and cultural components of the organization. A power company’s strategic planning should include developing a knowledge management system to capture both the explicit and tacit knowledge of employees that is specific to critical assets of the company.
Explicit knowledge is articulated, easily documented, shaped, and codified and can be expressed in formal and systematic language. The power generating industry’s traditional training programs address the explicit knowledge contained in written documents, technology manuals, policies, and procedures.
Tacit knowledge is harder to capture and transfer to new employees because it involves both cognitive and technical elements and is based on action, experience, and involvement in a specific context. Tacit knowledge is highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or share with others. It is often unspoken or unwritten. It consists of a technical dimension often referred to as know-how and a cognitive dimension that includes schemes, mental models, and beliefs.
Tacit knowledge can be subjective and hard to formalize and communicate. However, mentors may be willing to share their tacit knowledge with new employees, and companies should encourage this.

Knowledge Management Imperatives

Knowledge management imperatives are essential to support the acquisition, management, transfer, and use of organizational knowledge. The imperatives must be considered and planned for when implementing knowledge management initiatives and they must continually be nurtured to improve organizational knowledge management and to help organizations realize the desired results of knowledge management.
Three knowledge management imperatives for the electric power generation industry are a knowledge-enabled culture, information technology and blended learning, and strategic planning and measurement.
Knowledge-Enabled Culture. Some organizations in the industry have cultures that inhibit knowledge management. If employees within an organization seek knowledge that is important for the overall good of an organization, a knowledge-network culture will support their efforts.
Information Technology and Blended Learning. Knowledge management information technologies support the collection, storage, and dissemination of formal or explicit knowledge. Supportive policies increase the speed of explicit knowledge acquisition and distribution. Organizations must maintain and update information technologies, such as repositories, databases, and knowledge maps in order to provide accurate, accessible, and usable organizational knowledge. Integrated computerized management systems support knowledge transfer by providing easy access to organizational policies and procedures, best practices or lessons learned, work planning and control, and by allowing members of the organization to identify subject matter experts. The outputs from these systems must be readily available to all employees.
Training programs must include practical applications and follow-up techniques that build proper habits. A blended learning approach has to be a well-coordinated training program consisting of:

  • E-enabled knowledge—documents, articles, notes, and technical experts.
  • E-enabled distance learning—training modules, video conferences, and webcasts.
  • E-enabled collaboration—interactive peer-to-peer learning.
  • Team-based simulation—computer simulations.
  • Customized programs and workshops.

Strategic Planning and Measurement. Strategic knowledge management planning begins with the organizational leadership communicating the importance of using organizational knowledge to gain competitive advantage. Successfully implementing knowledge management strategies requires strong leadership and the collaboration of staff at all levels. Regularly measuring the success of your efforts will ensure that you are prepared for staff turnover. Ultimately, the success of your knowledge management efforts will be measured by the success of your organization over time.

Dr. Robert Mayfield is plant manager at an 885-MW combined-cycled gas-fired generating station in Virginia. He is a nuclear submariner who spent 27 years in the nuclear Navy.

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