Many companies trade on their experience. The word alone transmits a sense of trustworthiness and reliability that makes customers feel secure. However, if you asked a manager to define exactly what that experience is, they might be hard-pressed to provide an answer. It’s a concept that is both powerful and vague, and is hard to pinpoint in dayto-day office work. So, what is real experience, and what really makes a person or team valuable to a company? How is that experience borne out in business dealings, and how can a company retain that experience if they can’t even describe it? Maik H. Wagner spends his days answering these questions. He works with companies to help them turn experience into a usable, transferable resource. Through a process known as knowledge management, Wagner ensures that valuable experience is not lost as the company develops, and helps less eective teams learn from high performers. Because experience is often diffuse, highly-individual, and context-dependent, it can be hard for internal managers to see the wood for the trees. There-fore, companies can be blind to the wealth of in-house experience that goes untapped. Without a proper system to define and harness this knowledge, companies simply lose it instead of using it to reach their business goals. Here, Maik Wagner shares a few tips on how a company can weigh up its experience, turn it into a usable resource, and maintain it within the organisation.
Not all of the experience that a person or a team has rolling around their brains will be useful to your company. Therefore, before you start a process of knowledge management, it’s important to know the exact kind of experience that you want to gather. Ultimately, you need to decide what will end up being economically useful to your company. What kind of knowledge will help your teams to perform better and to provide a better return? Once you have established strict parameters, it will be easier to define what’s useful information, and what’s worthless.
Decide what you need to know
Most experience within companies is accrued over long periods as people and teams work together and build their knowledge. While that knowledge is trapped in the context of an individual or a team, you can’t define what exactly could benefit others across the organisation. Therefore, you need to remove the context from the experience to decide what is really an economically useful resource. Companies need to ask themselves where performance needs to be improved, and what knowledge can be applied as general information within the company? Using those answers as a guideline, companies can analyse and process internal experience to distil the most useful, broadly applicable information.
Make sure not to fall into the trap of believing that useful experience is the sole reserve of your best and brightest employees. High performers work in tandem with other people and teams that all feed into knowledge processes and how experience is developed. To explore the networks, and thus the entire span of knowledge, you need to speak with each individual or stakeholder that your star employees interact with on a day-to-day basis. This means you get a broader picture of how the experience is developed and processed, and has the added advantage of going beyond the manager’s hunch about who is most valuable. Managers cannot be aware of everything that’s happening within their teams, and so exploring the internal networks deepens the scope of experience that you can glean knowledge from.
Knowledge management consultants have to speak to experienced individuals, examine complex communication patterns, and assess the validity of experience types against a series of theses and hypotheses. Perhaps most importantly however, it’s important for a consultant to be realistic. Even armed with very detailed knowledge about management and team behaviours, one cannot completely discover everything that makes up a perfect experience set. However, from this process the consultant can define a set of derivatives that can be used to quickly train successors, redevelop company processes, and develop competencies within teams.
By extracting knowledge from experience, managers are given a very good foundation for further developing teams and optimising processes. However, now that the knowledge has been distilled, it needs a good management structure to ensure the company learns from the process and to put the new-found information to work. Managers have to decide how teams use the findings, how they should be applied to the best eect, and perhaps even most importantly, decide what should be discarded, or kept for use at a later date.
Applying what you’ve learned is a challenging task and it’s important to start small when you begin to implement these learnings. If you overhaul every process based on your findings, you won’t be able to properly assess the extent to which you really need this resource. If you change the overall corporate culture, you distort the impact of the smaller tweaks.
As with any internal process that isn’t directly monetised, it can be very hard to measure the success of knowledge management. However, if an employee can start their new role armed with the knowledge, processes, network, and best practices of their predecessor, it will soon be easy to see if it has paid off. Assessing the success of changed processes, or whether a team is developing certain competencies can take a lot longer. Therefore, it’s important to remember that knowledge management is a long-term commitment that requires ongoing attention, and not just a once-off quick fix.
Effective knowledge management helps companies operate at peak condition and means that the inevitable loss of valuable employees won’t hamper the smooth running of the company. It also means that poorer teams can learn from their stronger counterparts, with the end result being that each team performs at its best. If your company is struggling to keep up the pace, maybe you should ask yourself if your in-house experience is as reliable as you think it is.