Tapping Into Knowledge Management

By John Parkinson  |  Posted 05-12-2008

What do you know?

As part of an operational hardening project, I just finished an extensive review of the operational support documentation for our production systems. We conduct this review periodically to ensure that our business-continuity and disaster-recovery plans will work even if none of our people are available to operate and support the recovery site.

Most of the news from the just-completed review is very good. Although we have a dynamic production environment, the day-to-day production processes are well-documented and up to date.

We are less clear, however, on how much more than the formal operational documentation is in daily use by the production support teams, and how much of what they use is not well-represented by the formal documentation sets.

I'm referring to the tacit knowledge that exists in every organization: generally the accumulated experience that represents a level beyond the business-as-usual procedural definitions that the formal documentation provides. This undocumented knowledge and experience encompass the things we do when we don't have time for--or access to--the formal checklists and procedures that we want everyone to follow.

It's the knowledge in people's minds, rather than what's in the hard- and soft-copy documents we maintain. And it gets used a lot more than we like to admit.

This classic tacit-to-explicit capture scenario is not new. I've been wrestling with some flavor of this dilemma ever since I got involved in the knowledge management arena in the early 1990s. But I need to solve it soon, because many of the people in our organization who have tacit knowledge are getting close to retirement and will take their knowledge and experience with them.

The services vendors I work with all agree on how to solve this problem: with a big, expensive Knowledge Management (always with capitals) consulting engagement. However, I'm skeptical whether what they propose will actually work, especially because there's no proof that they've managed to make it work elsewhere.

Knowledge management isn't something you do. Rather, it's the result you get when you do a lot of other things right. And it doesn't happen simply by using automation and tools, although both can help get the right things to work properly.

And here's the most critical factor: The people who have valuable knowledge are too busy to make time for the extensive interviews, observations, explanations and data-gathering workshops that are needed to establish a knowledge database.

As much as I want to solve this problem, I don't believe that conventional approaches will work. So I'm going to have to create a stealth approach that gets me what I need without disrupting business as usual or stressing the operations and support teams.

Right now, I'm not sure how I'm going to do this. I have a few ideas, and I've asked my services partners to come up with some as well. It will be interesting to see what kind of innovative thinking they offer us.

Until then, I'll keep chipping away at the tacit-knowledge pile, while incrementally improving our explicit-knowledge assets.

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