Schmooze Your Way to Knowledge Retention

Jan 24, 2019

By Lorrie Lykins

Anyone who's ever attended a professional conference knows that the happy hour/networking/schmooozathon session can be an opportunity to hear enthralling business folklore you ordinarily would not hear anywhere else. This corporate version of cowboys trading stories around the campfire offers listeners a chance to pick up valuable insight, ideas and education, not to mention new material to add to our own repertoires. It comes to us in the forms of witty anecdotes, quips, and tales from the trenches that we can customize and repeat as if they are our own at the next conference, or toss into a presentation, client call, or team meeting.

The beautiful thing about traditional conference networking sessions is that they are relaxed and usually take place in a fairly confined area, perfect for absorbing tidbits of knowledge and experience without even being directly involved in the conversation. All you have to do is sidle up to the hors d'oeuvre table and linger over the chicken satay in order to pick up some juicy nuggets of wisdom from seasoned professionals. This sort of informal (tacit) learning and knowledge transfer is a favorite of mine—I sometimes even take notes (unobtrusively, of course), by feigning interest in something on my BlackBerry.

Incorporating a little bit of that happy hour/networking mojo into your organization's culture might be an excellent element to add to your knowledge preservation and transfer efforts. Moreover, if your organization has not done much in terms of thinking about how to mitigate or prevent knowledge loss at all, don't panic, because you're not alone.

Lack of time, accountability, resources, and support from management are commonly cited factors that preclude many organizations from embarking on  a knowledge retention and transfer plan according to a 2009 study of 426 organizations conducted by i4cp in partnership with the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) and HR People & Strategy (HRPS). The idea of initiating some sort of knowledge transfer and retention program may seem daunting and even intimidating, but it really doesn't have to be. In addition, beginning to foster a culture that conveys knowledge as a practical matter of going about the day-to-day operations of the business doesn't need to be complicated. If it's designed and approached in a way that fits with your organization's existing culture, it can be fairly simple and even fun. In fact, starting simply and inexpensively is probably a smarter way to go for many organizations—one example of this is beginning informal knowledge transfer through storytelling.

The practice of passing along your organization's knowledge, history, and folklore in an informal or formalized way (or a combination of the two) can achieve much more beyond preserving a track record of why and how you accomplished what you did; it can build bridges for better communication, fuel innovation and boost productivity. It can also prevent needless squandering of resources, which brings to mind a business-lore tale that's a favorite of mine. The story has been making the rounds for several years and I've heard various versions of the same basic premise: a group of engineers/mechanics/scientists (or fill in the profession of your choice here) could not figure out how to resolve a serious equipment failure/safety problem/design flaw (or fill in the problem of your choice here). They wrestled around with the conundrum for quite some time but made no real progress and then one day one of the team members went bowling/fishing/out for beers (or fill in the activity of your choice here) with a recently retired colleague and mentioned the pickle. The recently retired colleague casually replied that the same issue had come up a few years before and that it had been easily resolved by doing X,Y,Z. The moral of the story, of course, is that if your organization is not invested in knowledge transfer and retention, the odds are pretty good that someone somewhere in your organization is at this very moment needlessly reinventing the wheel.

i4cp's new Knowledge Retention Playbook: Tools and Techniques for Preserving Knowledge offers suggestions for knowledge retention beginners that include establishing recurring storytelling roundtables to pass along organizational memory and the history of “how things get done.” These informal discussions can describe decision-making processes and lessons that have been learned. Human capital expert John Coné says that as much as he advocates the use of technology for many things, the reality is that the most effective approaches to knowledge transfer are "people dependent."

Practical and simple exercises such as “sitting down informally and sharing organizational folklore about how we get things done around here and why,” according to Coné, are much more impactful than asking new hires or employees new to positions to read procedural instructions that have been uploaded into a database.

Organizations can create communities of practice that foster the exchange of information among co-workers from the top down, and vice versa. If individuals seem hesitant to function as storytellers, invite the team to present in a panel discussion forum. Communities of practice can be virtual or face-to-face, and they can allow workers who perform the same tasks to “meet” and share experiences and best practices or questions about processes and procedures. Communities may meet on a regular basis, or they may get together spontaneously as the need arises. The group typically has a leader or facilitator who is a more experienced employee. These communities are particularly useful when similar tasks are performed at different locations.

Whatever stage your organization may be in terms of actively preserving and conveying knowledge, now's a good time to revisit what you have been doing and consider broadening your efforts with informal activities that foster knowledge transfer. If your organization has no KR initiatives in place, there's no time like the present to get started.

i4cp's 4-Part Recommendation:

1. Champion the cause.
Support for KR should begin with senior-level support and evangelizing, allocation of resources, and clear ownership, along with concise and consistent messaging that KR is important and worthy of a formal management strategy.

2. Designate a leader. Organizations that are further along in the KR process should consider establishing a knowledge management office responsible for overseeing the execution of KR and ensuring that it is fully integrated into day-to-day functions companywide. A chief knowledge officer (CKO) should be tasked with developing standards and practices, supported by an internal or external advisory council, that will foster consistent knowledge sharing and practices and build a knowledge-sharing culture.

3. Figure out what you have (or don't). Organizations need to identify what is critical knowledge, where it resides, and how to capture, preserve and communicate it. This begins with identification of key positions and functions in the organization and the skills associated with them. Determinations should be made about the time required to develop talent in those key functions and positions. Do not assume key positions and competencies have already been identified during previous reductions in force, or that these efforts minimized the impact of knowledge loss. Some may assert that knowledge resides within one area or another and that business unit leaders possess the most critical information; while others may insist that key knowledge resides in the C-suite, IT, or HR. In fact, key knowledge resides in every area and at every level of the organization, and not necessarily in what may have been previously identified as "key roles."

4. Start small—but start. There is no one right way to approach formalizing KR. With few exceptions, most organizations will need to create a multifaceted approach to building institutional memory that consists of something more than one-way communication with newer/junior employees acting as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge by colleagues/teachers. KR initiatives must be dynamic and flexible if they are to achieve efficacy over the long run. This can be accomplished with the creative application of tools and approaches such as cross-training, leveraging technology and establishing communities of practice. Organizations should begin with small pilots with a few teams. The key is to get started.

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About the Author(s)

Lorrie Lykins  is i4cp's ( Managing Editor and Director of Research Services. She is an adjunct professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL.