Strategies for Knowledge Capture

Introduction

The ageing of the population – and the corresponding ageing of the workforce– is creating significant challenges for employers in Australia and across the developed world. The profile of the NSW government sector workforce is ageing, in accordance with this broader trend, and a significant proportion of the sector is expected to retire in coming years.

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When experienced employees retire, they often take with them a valuable knowledge built up over years or decades of work in the sector.  The knowledge that employees have about how to do their jobs is intangible, but can be critical to agencies’ ability to operate effectively and deliver high quality services.

One challenge for agencies in managing the changing scale and timing of retirements from the government sector will be to capture critical institutional knowledge from retiring employees and to transfer it to their successors.

The challenge

An ageing government sector workforce

The 2013 State of the Sector report noted that demographic trends in the general population and public sector workforce show that the ageing workforce is already a reality. This is particularly the case in the government sector, where the average age of employees is 45 years, compared to 40 years for the general NSW workforce.

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The 2013 State of the Sector report noted there has been a decline in the proportion of all age groups in the public sector except those aged 55 years and over, with the group aged 55–64 years having the most significant growth over this time. Currently, 23.6% of government sector employees are aged 55 years or more, and 26.9% of employees aged 45–54 years will move into the 55+ age group over the next ten years.

Agencies need proactive strategies to capture and transfer critical knowledge

A 2010 Retirement Planning Survey report, undertaken for the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), found that a significant number of government sector employees intended to retire soon. Findings of the survey included the following:

  • agencies were likely to face increasing loss due to retirement, with 40% of employees aged 45 years and over saying they intended to retire from the public sector within the next five years
  • the average age for retirement across the sector was 61.5 years, with only 12.5% indicating an intended retirement age over 65 years
  • financial security was the main driver causing people to delay retirement past intended retirement age, with the global financial crisis having been a significant factor with the potential to alter the plans older workers had for retirement.

The 2012 State of the NSW Public Sector Report similarly found that a significant number of mature workers intended to retire soon. Specifically, the report found that:

  • around 55% of public sector workers aged over 65 years said they intended to leave the public service within a year
  • 34% of those aged over 55 years also intend to leave within a year
  • almost 74% of those who retire have worked in the public sector for over 20 years.

Knowing what knowledge you need to capture

In order to design an effective knowledge capture and transfer strategy for your agency, it is important to first identify the critical skills and knowledge that key retiring workers are likely to take with them. Knowledge is commonly understood to come in two broad types – explicit and tacit. Better practice models of knowledge capture and transfer consciously target both explicit and tacit knowledge.

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Explicit knowledge

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is factual and objective, and that can be easily documented and communicated. It can be articulated, expressed and codified without loss of meaning. It has been described as unambiguous, observable and indisputable. Examples include facts, figures, documents, databases, websites, numbers, codes, and formulae.

Because explicit knowledge can be documented readily, it is also easier to share and transfer between retiring employees and their successors. For example, documents can be made available through databases and intranets, allowing the information to be accessed and shared widely within an organisation. It can also be preserved in its recorded form for transfer and use long into the future.

Tacit knowledge

In contrast, tacit knowledge is personal, intuitive, subjective, and difficult to communicate between individuals and organisations.  It is rooted in experience, context and values. Tacit knowledge is difficult to transfer, and even more difficult to capture.

It includes knowledge such as the ability to recognise faces, speak a language, ride a bike, or play an instrument. In the workplace, tacit knowledge includes understanding of workplace culture (‘how we do things around here’), social networks, and professional ‘know how’.

Tacit knowledge is frequently the most valuable type of knowledge in the workplace, and, often, experienced employees are not actually aware of the full breadth and depth of their tacit knowledge.

Analysing your agency’s knowledge base

Before agencies can effectively capture and transfer knowledge, they need to understand what knowledge the agency holds and which of this information is critical.

The Australian Standard on Knowledge Management includes an assessment tool to assist agencies to gauge the maturity of their knowledge management activities. It also contains guidance on how to map an organisation’s knowledge to create a ‘visual presentation of knowledge processes, sources, assets, flows, gaps and barriers across and within an organisation’.

Where knowledge capture and transfer fit within workforce planning

Knowledge capture and transfer is a subset of workforce planning. Strategies to manage knowledge should be developed in parallel with agency workforce plans. The ageing workforce will create a range of workforce planning challenges for agencies, of which knowledge capture and transfer is just one.

The below diagram provides a visual representation of where knowledge capture and transfer fits within the broader workforce planning process.

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Knowledge Capture and Transfer – Techniques and Tools

There are several practical ways to capture and transfer organisational knowledge. Not every technique will be useful for every agency – agencies will need to consider the profile of their workforce, consider the type of knowledge held, and make assessments about what the agency’s key risks are from knowledge loss through the departure of experienced mature employees. Many agencies are likely to be using some of these techniques already, either deliberately or unconsciously, while other techniques may be new.

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Retain high performing late career employees longer

Retaining key mature workers for longer can provide a greater window to capture and transfer their critical knowledge before they leave the workforce permanently.

The 2010 Retirement Planning Survey found that there was an interest among mature workers in flexible work options as they approached retirement. The Survey found that some retention options were more attractive across the board to late career workers than others. In order of attractiveness to mature workers, the options canvassed for flexible retirement were:

  • Alternative job at the same salary
  • Permanent part time
  • Transition to retirement
  • Temporary part time
  • Flexi-time
  • Working from home
  • Job sharing
  • Reduced responsibility
  • Purchased leave
  • Leave without pay
  • Alternative job at a lower salary

The Retirement Planning Survey contains further details on implementing these options, which agencies may wish to consider. The PSC’s Flexible Working Resource can also provide guidance for agencies on flexible work options that can be made available to employees.

Mentoring and coaching

Mentoring and coaching can be a highly effective ways to transfer knowledge – including tacit knowledge. As well as transferring knowledge, they can help to foster good professional relationships within an organisation, enabling a more positive organisational culture.

Detailed guidance on how to implement an effective mentoring program is available in the NSW Government Mentoring Made Easy: A Practical Guide booklet.

Job shadowing

Teaming up a less experienced employee with a mature worker, to shadow a role the newer employee may take on following the retirement of the mature worker, can be a useful way to transfer knowledge.  In particular, it can be a highly effective way to maximise transfer of critical tacit knowledge – job shadowing allows less experienced employees to understand and hook into the networks the outgoing worker has within the organisation, and with key external stakeholders. Job shadowing allows an experienced worker to share know-how with a less experienced employee, including how to deal with difficult or unusual problems that come up on the job.

Culture change

A workplace built on mutual trust and respect – where new ideas are welcomed and the focus is on achieving goals – is likely to enhance productivity, encourage collaboration and improve service delivery. A positive and constructive culture is also one where information sharing is encouraged and rewarded, and information hoarding is discouraged.

Many factors influence the culture of a workplace: its people, leadership, systems, practices, written and unwritten rules, official and unofficial priorities, perceptions and beliefs. The way things are typically done has very real and significant effects on individual employees’ behaviours and the performance of the whole workplace.

To help agencies deal with these and future challenges, the PSC is developing a comprehensive package of resources to support all employees, including managers, to effectively embed the values in their workplace policies, practices, services and conduct.

As part of broader cultural change initiatives, agencies should consider how to make information sharing a positive and valued part of an agency’s organisational culture.

Communities of practice

Communities of practice enable the exchange of examples of ‘best practice’, networking between individuals in similar roles in related organisations; and peer review and recognition. They can also be excellent ways to facilitate the exchange of explicit knowledge (i.e. new policy documents, facts and figures in the industry) as well as tacit knowledge (how to solve common problems, social networks).

The Public Service Commission supports formal Communities of Practice across a range of skill sets – see www.comprac.nsw.gov.au to find out more information or to join a relevant NSW Government Community of Practice. Encouraging outgoing experts, and their upcoming replacements, to participate in Communities of Practice can be an effective way to tease out best-practice knowledge and to transfer it to newer employees both in your agency and across the government sector.

Process documentation

Process documentation can take a variety of formats, including flowcharts, procedure manuals, process maps, workflow charts, and story boarding. Regardless of the format, the concept of process documentation is to record a step-by-step guide, using text, pictures and symbols to represent what, when and how to do a particular task. Process documentation can be particularly useful for transferring knowledge about technical tasks.

Because knowledge is ‘captured’ through this documentation process, it can be easily stored for future use. Storing process documentation, particularly in a commonly accessible area, including databases and intranets, allows a wide range of employees to access the knowledge. When it is stored in this way it can be also used long into the future to assist intakes of new employees.

'Critical incident' reporting

This form of knowledge capture has a variety of names, including critical incident reporting, lessons learned reviews and debriefs. These reports typically include a description of the difficult situation; an account of the actions taken in response; and the outcome of the situation. Reviews usually assess which actions were more or less effective in dealing with these situations.

Having a formalised process for debriefing can have many benefits. It encourage this reporting to actually be undertaken; ensures that debriefs consider all relevant questions; and ensures there is an identified repository for the debrief information so it can be tracked down and accessed in future when employees in that area are facing a similar situation.

Exit interviews

Exit interviews are a widely used – and valuable – tool for capturing knowledge from retiring workers.

In some cases it may be useful to have two exit interviews – one that deals with why the employee is leaving and how satisfied they were in the job (the results of which should remain in confidence) and one that focuses solely on knowledge capture (the results of which should be shared with relevant successors). The knowledge capture-focused exit interview should seek to obtain knowledge about what the departing employee does and how they do it, with a view to transferring that knowledge to remaining employees.

Detailed information on conducting exit interviews is available at pages 80-82 of the NSW Public Service Personnel Handbook issued by the PSC.

Information technology solution

While IT cannot alone provide effective knowledge capture and transfer, it can be a highly effective tool. IT is particularly useful for storing captured explicit knowledge.

Ensuring that organisations have electronic document records management systems in place ensures not only that agencies are meeting their record keeping requirements, but is vital in ensuring that precedents, decisions and policies are recorded and available to relevant staff. An effective and accessible agency intranet, with relevant policies and guidelines, can also assist in transferring and disseminating knowledge from older to less experienced employees.

Alumni networks 

Alumni networks are valuable because they allow managers in an agency to remain in regular contact with experienced employees who have retired. These connections can provide a basis for current managers to call experienced retirees for informal guidance where required. For retirees, these networks provide a way to keep up to date with the current work and direction of their former employer, which can be useful should there be opportunities to re-engage the retired employee on a contract basis for particular projects where their expertise would be useful.

These networks sometimes exist informally, though organisational support for more formalised alumni network events can boost participation and facilitate post-retirement knowledge transfers. Back to the Top