How to cure ‘corporate amnesia’ with knowledge management software

As Baby Boomers retire and the gig economy takes hold, efficiently capturing and sharing corporate information becomes ever more crucial. Fortunately, today’s knowledge management tools are up to the task.

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American enterprises are experiencing a “brain drain.” Not because people are leaving the country—the traditional meaning of the term—but because of job turnover as employees retire or contracts end. And they’re taking their accumulated knowledge with them.

According to figures from Pew Research, every day for the next 13 years, 10,000 Baby Boomers will reach retirement age. These are people who may have decades of tacit knowledge that they’ve never bothered to record or share.

At the same time, the “gig economy” and the reliance on flexible workforces, with contractors brought in on a per-project basis, means workers stay long enough to learn valuable information but not long enough to pass it on. This is particularly relevant in IT: In a May 2016 article for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, economists Elka Torpey and Andrew Hogan identified computer and information technology work as one of the occupational categories in which “gig work may be increasingly relevant.”

IT is also a sector with a lot of teleworkers—the 2016 Year-End Report from telecommuting job service Virtual Vocations found that IT is the most prevalent telecommuting job category.

Whether composed of contract workers or teleworkers, for a flexible workforce to be effective, it must have access to the same kinds of information a permanent, on-site workforce would. “Once a team forms and completes some work, they... disband and move on to other assignments,” says John Schneider, vice president of product marketing at collaboration software vendor Jive. “It’s critical that an organization retain their information if it’s going to have continuity as new missions and new assignments come up.”

Other changes in the workplace have also made knowledge retention more important. Forrester Research analyst Charles Betz points to the effect of digital transformation in business. “One of the problems we have as we automate is that the remaining work becomes more knowledge-driven,” he says. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can handle routine tasks, but “the work that the chatbots and agents can’t handle is the higher-variability work that requires more context.”

The problem of keeping information is also exacerbated by the way work has become more decentralized. “Knowledge used to be supply-side,” says Jesse Davis, executive vice president and COO of developer community platform provider DZone Software. “Knowledge was generated by some of the people in the company—product managers, CEOs, vice presidents—and then pushed down through the organization. But just like with development functions that went from a top-down approach to more of an agile, team-based practice, knowledge dissemination has evolved to the expectation that you can go find the information when you want it.”

Some speak of the problem as a form of “corporate amnesia.” Andy Yates, IT business partner at software development firm ThoughtWorks, says, “There’s different kinds of amnesia. The one you think of straightaway is, ‘We have some knowledge in the organization but we’re unable to find what it is because somebody’s left, or we didn’t write it down when it happened and now we’ve forgotten about it.’ Another is around forgetting ‘how things are done here.’”

To address the issue, many companies have turned to knowledge management (KM) systems—software platforms that promote and enable the capturing, storage, and retrieval of what people know before it’s lost. “KM is there mainly as an enabler to help curate and retain key information against the possibility of people leaving and so that you’re not constantly rediscovering the same information over and over again,” says Betz. “It helps reduce variation in corporate processes and execution.”

Attempts to implement such systems are not new, but “technologies have matured to a place where they are more user-friendly, come with less administrative burden, and in most cases actually do what their sales teams promise,” says Zach Wahl, president and CEO of Enterprise Knowledge, a consultancy that specializes in knowledge management and related IT services. “‘Good KM’ is more achievable than it has ever been.”

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