posted 7 Sep 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 1
Lost and found
The issue is no longer ‘brain drain’. It’s all about ‘brain circulation’.
By Jerry Ash
It has been 33 years since the
NASA has ‘forgotten’ how because engineers who built the original Saturn V rocket retired from the space agency in the 1990s without leaving any collective memory. Important blueprints were never catalogued.
These days, the problem of lost knowledge is at the forefront of corporate consciousness, not only because of the legacy of the downsizing craze of the 1990s or the feast or famine nature of a volatile market, but because of inattentive management and increasingly agile and independent workers who no longer stake their careers on long-term relationships with a single company. Those are even bigger issues than the overstated departure of the ‘baby boomer’ generation in the
For example, a recent survey of 500 managers in
The study also indicated nearly half of all companies have lost customers and significant revenue opportunities due to employee turnover and the resulting loss of their unique knowledge and expertise.
Another study in the
But there is another side to knowledge lost – knowledge gained.
Jean-Baptiste Meyer, a socio-economist at the
If you think of knowledge as a flow, then it flows both ways through revolving doors and continues flowing for as long as it stays within an organisation. Gain or loss depends entirely on how we handle the knowledge resource while we have it. The best time to capitalise on the knowledge asset is between the point of entry and the point of departure. Knowledge retention is laudable, but blocking or capturing departing knowledge is foolhardy.
The lessons learnt by Northrop Grumman (see page 26) during an episodic downsizing of the B-2 bomber staff reached beyond knowledge loss to knowledge managed. When Scott Shaffar returned to the scene after time off to complete his doctoral degree, the focus was on the traditional concern of lost skills. “During this episode,” says Scott Shaffar, now director of knowledge management, “we learnt the difference between the skills that are required to do the job and the knowledge that is required to meet the future.” Meeting the present and future became the primary goal of Northrop Grumman’s ultimate KM programme.
As production of the B-2 bomber wound down, Northrop Grumman became acutely aware of the real value and vital importance of managing its knowledge resources from lost to found, to capitalisation and retention, and, yes, on to the final turn of the cycle, lost knowledge.
Through a comprehensive knowledge-management initiative, Scott Shaffar and his team ensured that never again would knowledge be lost so profoundly as it was when more than 10,000 employees were sent packing. At the same time, he designed a programme that would capitalise and sustain knowledge regardless of turnover.
Northrop Grumman made considerable progress on managing knowledge flow before it was lost. The new KM programme included a document-management system to organise explicit knowledge, a database providing an overview of the tacit knowledge in people’s heads and a change in the way the company managed people.
When the second downsizing came, Northrop Grumman had become smarter about handling departing knowledge by managing existing knowledge better. Administrators knew more about what people knew, enabling better decisions about who would depart and who would stay. Most importantly, administrators had developed a process across the decentralised company structure that enabled transfer of knowledge and knowledgeable people from one sector to another, a critical process at a time when Northrop Grumman was simultaneously shrinking in one place and expanding in others through rapid merger and acquisition.
The KM programme at Northrop Grumman has become a critical success factor, helping raise the capabilities of the company to reach beyond airplanes to space. And, who knows, its knowledge diversity may have recaptured the knowledge necessary to return to the moon.