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The aging workforce (part 2)

December 3, 2010

Dilbert is one of the challenges in classic knowledge management that will occur today. Back in 1990, more people claimed that the core knowledge was to go back to the door every night. Therefore, the present value of the company independent, but the owner of the information is private.  It rare soul (I use her words please) to keep the focus on succession planning and key staff information that the answer is not encoded and argued that the allocation of capacity did not. Such mapping, the concept of implicit conversion of explicit knowledge, in part because it is, there is a risk of its introduction

Continuing, via Japanese and Hebrew my theme of yesterday. Actually, the real issue here is a failure to understand the nature of explicit knowledge, so let’s move to that

In yesterday’s post, I challenged the concept of tacit to explicit knowledge conversion generally, but specifically in the context of dealing with knowledge loss in the ageing workforce. Now it is important to note that I am not saying that there is no place for explicit or codified knowledge in any approach. However any such material does not arise from a conversion process, it’s one method of augmenting memory. Now, this is a subtle but vital point so let me expand on it. A set of engineering drawings is the primary knowledge object. It’s not that an Engineer carries the knowledge of the whole plant in their heads and then codifies it. Instead, the act of creating the drawings, and of understanding them requires knowledge, and shared knowledge between creator and user. Then drawing is the artefact of an emergent process, it is stable and can be used by people with the right training and skill. It would take a very incompetent organisation to lose this capability when someone retires from work.

But it’s not that type of knowledge object (in this case pure information based on a commonly understood but itself explicit symbology) that people worry about. Rather it’s the ability of someone with thirty years of experience to sense some failure, an unarticulated (and unarticulate) wrongness which means they check into something in more detail, often preventing catastrophic failure. It’s the ability when things are not working to know where to look first.

I remember this from my own experience. When we lived in St Albans and I went six months without a job I occupied myself between job search and holding of creditors with rewiring our his and putting in central heating (thanks to a parental gift of the parts). Despite the general stress of being out of work, I remember the period with fondness. Radio 4 was serialising Antony Pole’s A Dance to the Music of Time and so as I discovered one of the greatest English novel sequences of all time I cut floor boards, learnt the hard way to not to over-tighten compression joints and took great pleasure in taking a little extra effort to hide all pipework. I enlisted the help of my sister at one point (year of crewing boats with me had developed muscles that my wife did not possess) to lift the wall boiler in place. Having secured it to the wall we discovered that she was now trapped in a corner. However the thought of taking it down again was unacceptable, so somewhat brutally (but successfully) I proposed that her clothing be removed and cooking oil applied (don’t let your imagination run away with you, this was a role my wife felt able to undertake) and escape was possible. Either way, to return to the point, over the next few years I knew that the central heating system, the noises it made, and the subtle changes of heat in the floorboards were a language that only I could understand. It’s that language which can only be learnt by doing that you see with experienced software engineers who have tended legacy systems in Banks for decades. If something goes wrong they know where to look.

Now, this is commonly called intuition, but that is a misleading phrase and much abused since the publication of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In future worlds that particular book will be used as an exemplar of a journalist cherry-picking examples to support a pre-determined position, Larry Prusak once defined intuition as compressed experience and I think he has the right of it with that phrase.

Now if we call it compressed experience then, as in all sound language, we get a clue as to the solutions something that I will return to in a couple of days’ time. For the moment having dispensed with tacit to explicit on the grounds that (i) you can’t do it and (ii) it’s the wrong question anyway, I want to move on to another well-intentioned but failed approach, namely the use (or rather misuse) of stories. Back at the turn of the century, I was advocating narrative as the only way in which experience could be captured, and then only as a trigger mechanism. Others got the idea but failed to really understand the way in which narrative works in the human brain. They liked the idea of narrative, but they thought this meant telling stories. A lot of these early programmes were run by journalists which was a large part of the problem. Journalists scoop up the fragments of people’s existence and weave them into an entertaining and compelling story. That was their model and it was the approach adopted. In the Digital Story Telling Movement experts went into communities and helped people to tell compelling and often moving stories. In other cases, they interviewed experienced staff, recorded video tapes and edited them to create mini-documentaries.

Now all of this is interesting, valuable and capable of generating insight and understanding, but it’s not compressed experience. The journalist’s art is a transitory one, creating the material that will in the future wrap fish and chips or provide protection from paint drips. Very few stories survive into the future. I remember one organisation that rejected my advice on this, confessing a few years later that no one had accessed their expensively produced videos of senior engineers. As one of the younger ones put it: Why would I spend half an hour listening to a story from a boring old fart about technology that we no longer use. The interesting thing is if one of those boring old farts turned up to give a lunchtime lecture it was oversubscribed and younger engineers stayed to talk for hours afterwards.

The reason? The videotape was a static artefact, the conversation and living process of knowledge transfer. How we use technology to recreate that conversation is the heart of any sustainable solution and I will return to that shortly, but I have a few other posts to make first to build some of the contexts.

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