Without a Trace: Take Care to Protect Your Company's Knowledge

March 1, 2009
Insuring that your company's intellectual property and knowledge doesn't 'go missing' takes commitment and consistent focus.

Andy spent 15 years working in product development and was the go-to person for product life cycle questions. Jennifer was the one-person HR department and could quote state regulations by heart. As the company's technical guru and longest-term employee, Daniel knew more about the history of the manufacturing process and its evolution than anyone else in the company. What do these fictional employees have in common? They all left their companies and, with them, took the company's intellectual property with them. When they quit, retired, or got fired, the knowledge of company policies, procedures and standards left with them. The information vanished -- without a trace!

Ever watch the TV show Without a Trace? The show portrays how the FBI searches for missing people -- people who, like a company's knowledge, have vanished leaving few clues. I thought about this show while at lunch recently with a client who was confessing to me that one of her senior managers had been moved to a new position she really didn't want, and so she seemingly sabotaged her replacement by shredding, deleting, losing, and in other various ways, destroying vital records. The "missing" documents included state, federal, and internal policies, procedures, and standards. These disappeared without a trace!

While sabotage is rare, employees nonetheless quit, retire, or get fired everyday -- and often, only then do you find out that their work and their knowledge was not documented or shared. This is particularly painful in technical or manufacturing companies where knowledge drives the company. "We had to change the pressure set point by 20 PSI when we brought the reactor in. Now, it's back to the old setting; didn't anybody tell the new guy that we changed the set point last year?" Sound familiar?

Before its demise, a large photographic company, driven by innovation in R&D and by exact parameters in their manufacturing process, experienced a knowledge drain with the departure or retirement of each scientist who exited the building. Their lack of documentation and systemization of knowledge meant that, every five or six years, they were solving the same problems over and over. Why? Because when a problem surfaced again, the person who knew how it had been solved the last time was gone; so, too, was the answer. The company also suffered a loss in productivity as each new scientist had to "network" internally in order to learn about the company's chemicals and processes. Countless hours and resources were wasted when the response to such questions was, "Gee, David used to be the expert in that, but he retired three years ago. You might try calling Jeanne since she used to work with David."

When the company finally attempted to create a centralized database to capture and manage critical knowledge, the idea was met with strong opposition -- opposition born out of the culture of the company. "Knowledge is Power" had been the watchword for this company, so its scientists were accustomed to a climate in which personnel horded what they knew in order to build their own power base. Formal sharing of knowledge had not been a core value, so changing the culture would take more than merely creating a repository for information.

Strong companies have focused on setting standards for sales, service, operations, manufacturing, and delivery. Those standards are the road maps for employees and departments; they insure that customers' needs are met. Imagine what happens when those crucial directions disappear? Chaos at best with reduced productivity, product quality issues, and eventually lost revenue. There are certain actions you can and should take to protect your company's knowledge:

  • Rewrite job descriptions and performance expectations, to include maintaining and updating of relevant standards, procedures, processes, project results, etc.;
  • Include a "documentation audit" in all Performance Reviews -- jointly review a check list of required documentation;
  • Maximize your technology. Create a centralized database with a defined structure, taxonomy, and searching capabilities;
  • Require that all standards, policies, procedures, etc. be stored in the central database, not just on individual laptops;
  • Consider investing in formal Document Management software;
  • And, for the very ambitious, walk that talk and build upon a continuous improvement culture that supports ongoing review and improvement of your internal roadmaps.

In addition to the above actions, you may want to emulate the success achieved by a certain large, international chemical company. This very successful company requires their technical staff to contribute at least two technical papers per year to its database. To institutionalize knowledge and insure knowledge sharing, the company has created internal "public forums" which meet on a regular basis. During these forums, which are open to any one in the company, scientists and technologists present their work and findings. Presentations are then stored in the company database along with supporting data. The company takes this knowledge sharing one step further: four times per year, the R&D team meets with senior management to give project status reports and to review and discuss data. This accomplishes several knowledge management goals:

  • Data is reviewed, and new directions suggested when appropriate.
  • Potential solutions are discussed and analyzed.
  • Current findings are shared that can have an impact on other projects.
  • Knowledge is institutionalized.

Insuring that your company's intellectual property and knowledge doesn't "go missing" takes commitment and consistent focus. Deploying many of the principles of Six Sigma, ISO 9000 certification and basic process improvement will provide a foundation upon which you can build and customize to meet your company's unique and evolving needs. High performing companies are created by clearly defining, communicating, and sharing knowledge. Include this critical element of knowledge preservation to high performance in your strategic planning. Insure that your foundation for excellence doesn't disappear without a trace!

Shelley F. Hall is Principal of Catalytic Management Consulting, Stow Massachusetts, specializing in business performance and growth consulting. Catalytic's mission is to enhance its clients' profitability by delivering customer-focused solutions for increasing revenue and improving operational efficiencies. Website: www.catalyticmanagement.com

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