Knowledge management systems are about two things; training workers and preserving critical knowledge. Many companies only focus on the first of these, developing training systems which are used to bring new employees up to speed in the least possible time. That is useful and something that should be done. The faster workers can become productive the lower the company’s new hire costs.
However, the second part of knowledge management systems is largely ignored. When employees who hold critical knowledge are lost due to sickness, death or job change, the knowledge they hold in their heads is often lost with them. This can cause the company to suffer greatly, especially when there are problems which need to be solved, which requires that critical knowledge.
It has long been said that there is no such thing as an irreplaceable man. That is only true when the knowledge that employees have is documented and shared with others. A software engineer who wrote the control program for a company’s principal produce can be irreplaceable, if nobody else understands the program that he wrote. A project manager can be irreplaceable if nobody else understands the project that he is managing. Even a maintenance worker can be irreplaceable if nobody else in the company knows how to repair a piece of equipment.
John was an industrial engineer in a mid-sized manufacturing company. His job dealt mostly with finding the right resources to solve problems on the production floor. Through the years, he had dealt with a number of problems over and over, becoming the company’s expert on those particular problems. As long as John was around, nobody had to worry. Nobody else bothered learning what John knew, because he was always there to take care of it.
Unfortunately, John wasn’t immortal. Just like anyone else, his body grew old and stopped functioning as well as it had when he was younger. For John, it was cancer that started attacking his body. He was forced to retire, just because of the treatments he was taking.
Everyone was sad to see John go. He had been with the company so long that he was like a fixture around there. Losing him was like losing the company’s mascot. Yet, there really wasn’t any other choice. While everyone missed him, they thought they’d get along just fine without him.
That is, they thought that for about a week. Then one of the machines that John had designed started acting up. They couldn’t seem to get two parts in a row to come out right. Suddenly, John’s knowledge was critical, and they didn’t have it available. If they had only recorded his knowledge in the company’s knowledge database, another one of the engineers could fix the problem.
That caused a major shift in the company’s operations. Even though John was retired, he was retained as a consultant. The Human Resources manager had one of her employees take a BABINM501A course on knowledge management systems, so that they would know how to record John’s knowledge. Even though retired, John became the guinea pig to test out their new systems. Everything he knew was recorded in the knowledge management system, so that the company would be ready for the next crisis.