Repeat after Me: “I Cannot Capture Everything!”

When people hear the term knowledge management, I immediately get two questions asked of me.

1) What do you do exactly? The answer to this can be completely different based on your organization and I won’t go into that here (maybe in later entry…check back in a few weeks); and
2) Since you’re in knowledge management, we need to capture all the knowledge of our people retiring; can you do that?

Too often, leaders expect knowledge managers to do just that…manage all of the knowledge within a team, project or person’s head even. The debate over whether or not the “management” in “knowledge management” is the right term has lasted ever since its inception in the 90’s. The word “management” conjures immediate thinking, and therefore skepticism, that I will capture and manage all of the knowledge in people’s heads.

In theory, I guess that’s the general idea but I usually answer this question with a question. Don’t you love it when people do that? Internal consultants are famous for answering questions with questions. Instead of saying “yes” or “no”, which I am always tempted to say “no” and would be right in doing so, I ask the question: “What is it you really need to know?”

It is impossible to capture everything a person’s knows! Heck, most people don’t know what they know let alone are able to articulate it without specific questions and prompting. This is why organizations need knowledge managers, among other reasons which I blog about.

I’ll never forget the time when I was with a training professional conducting a “knowledge transfer” session with a soon-to-be retiree, and she began by asking: “If someone were to do your job, what would they need to know?” I highly recommend against this approach. You’re asking the person to do the knowledge management work for you. Tell me “everything” you know. If you believe Dave Snowden’s approach, and I do, people only need to know what they know when they need to know it. And, in a interview with a training professional is not when they need to know it but rather when they are on the job.

A better approach is something I saw in May’s Inside Knowledge Magazine….the Knowledge Prioritization Matrix (put forth by Tom Young of Knoco). A conversation with leadership to determine what knowledge is high risk of leaving and is irreplaceable should be what you focus on. Once that is determined, then you can target your questions to the expert in more detailed and concrete terms that will generate real answers usable by someone else. This coupled with actual job observation and on-the-spot questions will get you valuable knowledge capture, which is the real purpose behind knowledge management.