E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

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“Knowledge Is Power” or Is It “Knowledge Shared Is Power”? – Preparing the Way for the Baby Boomer Generation

Earlier on today Dennis McDonald pointed me to a recent weblog post he created around the subject of An Insurance Company CIO Talks About the "Baby Boomer IT Brain Drain" where he is actually discussing the growing problem that most IT companies will be facing over the next few months when the baby boomers generation starts retiring, taking their knowledge and experiences with them onto something else. He provides a couple of examples of how two different CIOs thus far have reacted to the emerging problem of what to do with those baby boomers and all the knowledge they carry, whether they should let it go or just try to capture it in whatever the knowledge repository. And at the same time he refers to a couple of challenges that for those folks out there who have been doing Knowledge Management for some time now it would sound very familiar.

There is no questioning around this particular problem that Dennis is describing. Indeed, it has been in the agenda for most large corporations for a number of months now, specially with regards to what is actually going to happen when all those baby boomers knowledge workers decide to retire and take all they know with them. He brings a couple of interesting points and I thought I would comment on both of them hoping to contribute to the discussion. Feel free to chime into the conversations over at Dennis’ weblog post or over here if you feel you would want to add some more:

"There is therefore some sensitivity, especially among corporate HR staff, that encouragement by management of special programs for documenting technology and practices might be viewed by some as an attempt to hasten the day when their services might no longer be needed. (The legal issue here is called "constructive discharge.")

[…] If the employee out of fear is afraid for his or her job, the end result might be unwillingness to collaborate with knowledge extraction techniques."

Hummm, interesting thoughts, indeed. That sensitivity may eventually be there. I am not going to deny it. It is a fact. However, while reading that particular paragraph from Dennis’ weblog it pretty much sounds to me like an scenario or an environment where Knowledge Management, as a business strategy, is anything but absent. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that all along all these knowledge workers may have been building up their knowledge, experiences and expertise to then not share anything with the rest of the employees and when they leave the company they leave everything behind but take their knowledge with them. That sounds to me like the good old saying that since "Knowledge Is Power" I don’t want to share it because then my job, whether I am part of the younger or an older generation, is at risk and I may lose everything I have been able to build up. Scary, I know, but I am sure there are still companies out there where this kind of corporate knowledge sharing culture is still commonly used all over the place. Sigh.

As  I have been commenting elsewhere, I find that particular attitude a bit restricting and demoralising from the perspective where it sounds like it was nurtured in a very strong siloed business, which means that they would have been struggling with this not just with the baby boomers retiring but with the overall workforce. Indeed, "Knowledge Is Power". I can certainly buy that, but, even better, like Mark Palmer mentioned not long ago in another weblog post of mine, "Knowledge Shared Is Power". To be more precise, here is the quote he mentioned over there and which I think would also fit in quite nicely over here:

"Having knowledge in one’s head is not true knowledge whether claims are made regarding it’s intellectual value or not. Knowledge must lead to "value" as you have eluded to in your post. If I keep all my ideas in my head no one gains, not me, my peers, nor the general public. […]""

You would agree that particular quote is very relevant to the problem we are facing in this situation. Whether we like it or not, the actual power is not on retaining the knowledge in one’s head any longer. On the contrary, on sharing your knowledge with as many people as possible so that they are able to perform their jobs better and at the same time make your life a lot easier. So this is why I mentioned earlier on that Dennis’ quotes mentioned above sound like there isn’t a KM strategy in place where every single knowledge worker gets encouraged to share knowledge and collaborate with others and continue building further up on the collective wisdom, no matter if they are part of a younger or an older generation. Knowledge sharing is something that should happen every day, not just when you are about to retire. The same way you have been learning some from folks over time it is always a good thing for you as well to share some more knowledge with others. The everlasting give-and-take that we have been able to see all along. The problems and the issues actually do come up when nobody takes that into practice and you realise how all that knowledge is scattered around without having the possibility of capturing it because by the time you realise about it they have already left. And only then is when you would be facing a huge problem. But in my opinion it is more due to the fact that strategy was never there in the first place than trying to rush off in the last minute to capture as much knowledge as possible.

Thus to me the overall problem should be no placed on how to attract most of those baby boomers and their knowledge but more to work on that KM strategy from the very beginning where everyone is more than welcome to participate and share what they know, and where perhaps they should be a section dedicated to face this issue with the retirement of part of that workforce. I bet that if the corresponding KM strategy would have been in place from the very first beginning we would not be worrying about this particular item. On the contrary, we would be feeling very comfortable that we have got the situation under control. But by the sounds of it, we may not be there just yet. It looks like something may have gone wrong not now but from the very beginning. Perhaps the challenge then would be is it worth revisiting the strategy? Or just take the risk and try to capture that partial knowledge, in a rush, without context and who knows how reusable it could well be. I am not sure about you but I would rather prefer to go into the direction of the first option. Somehow I feel that one is going to be a safer bet than anything else, don’t you think?

Dennis is also referencing another interesting and thought provoking weblog post (As Senior IT Workers Retire, Will IT Expertise Also Disappear?) around this very same subject and which I have decided I would weblog about it some time later. Lots of things to mention on that one. Thus stay tuned.

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4 comments

  1. Luis, as always, I appreciate your lucid and thoughtful comments. These exchanges with you have been very helpful in my efforts to understand how current technologies and practices are relevant to knowledge management.

    Keep in mind you are responding to my comments on a single interview. I will be reporting on others. The situation described in these first writeups may not be typical.

    The fact remains that in many organizations a culture supportive of the “free and open” sharing of knowledge and expertise may not be pervasive. As you have said, we all know about departmental “siloing.” We all know that individuals differ in their willingness to share knowledge and expertise.

    If an employee actively resists sharing knowledge — no matter what that individual’s age — that should be viewed as counter to the best interests of the organization. Management has to be concerned that a refusal to collaborate is counterproductive and involves an individual putting his or her interests above those of the organizations.

    If this is happening widely this takes the situation beyond the realm of knowledge management into an immediate management issue. Management might say, “True, if our corporate culture included open and free sharing of knowledge and expertise we wouldn’t have these problems. But I can’t wait years to solve the problem! What can I do now?”

    This is one of the reasons that the CIO “Boris” whom I interviewed turned to an outsourcing solution to initiate the process of legacy system documentation. He didn’t have time to wait for a change in the corporate culture. He saw an opportunity to use technology — using software to reverse-engineer a data model and functional design — to accelerate the documentation process while still involving the “baby boomer” senior specialists responsible for system maintenance.

    His is a pragmatic approach. It’s an example of a situation where, while there may be a clear need for a strategic alignment of corporate culture to embrace more open and collaborative knowledge sharing practices, there is also a need to take immediate actions to solve specific problems that cannot wait for a culture shift.

    You have already written on how to incorporate Web 2.0 techniques into the enterprise:

    http://blogs.ittoolbox.com/km/elsua/archives/5-key-steps-towards-adopting-web-20-within-the-enterprise–10873

    I’ll also be addressing this in future posts.

  2. Thanks very much, Dennis, for dropping by and for the extensive feedback comments ! Lots of great input in there ! I certainly agree with you that perhaps having commented about this on the first interview may not have been the best thing. I shall be looking forward to further interviews and insights you may be able to share and see how things may have changed a bit, or not. I feel that somehow those other interviews may bring some other interesting perspectives into the table. Please do keep us posted.

    We all know that individuals differ in their willingness to share knowledge and expertise

    Yes, indeed, that is out of the question and I can certainly understand how that knowledge sharing and expertise may not be that pervasive. However, I would expect that for every company out there who would want to transition from a labour-based model into a knowledge-based model would not have many chances than to establish a KM strategy that would meet the needs both of the company itself and those of the employees. Otherwise I doubt that particular business would be able to survive in the long run. At least, I cannot see how it would be able to make it watching how others are transitioning into that knowledge-based model. That is why I agree with you that if knowledge workers refuse to collaborate and share knowledge in that particular environment it would no longer be an issue related to KM but more to Management itself, like you mentioned above.

    Good point as well about the pragmatism vs. the long term goals of provoking a knowledge sharing cultural shift. Yes, sometimes it may all well be a question of looking for a balance between the two. Not having to give up on that pragmatism but looking already into provoking that cultural change. As I said, I feel that companies which do not transitioned into the knowledge-based model are bound to get into trouble as time goes by so the sooner that cultural change is provoked the better it would be, in my opinion.

    I look forward to your commentary on that particular weblog post that I put together over at elsua – The Knowledge Management Blog. I am sure that you would have some interesting insights to share and I can’t wait to read some more about them. Whenever you have them ready, that is 🙂

    Thanks again for the feedback !

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