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What’s Killing Your Knowledge Retention?

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You already know that frustrated, angry feeling that comes when you’ve just seen the same mistake happen for the third time. When the concrete crew doesn’t install the anchor bolts, or the framers use the wrong lumber for the bottom plates, it’s time to start all over. Assuming these aren’t intentional mistakes; you’re left to wonder just where things went wrong.

The answer might lie in your company’s ability to harness, leverage, and preserve knowledge. And, this ability is increasingly determining which firms are coming out on top. These top performers are seeing continuous improvement in their operations, responding to customers more quickly, reducing rework, and discovering new ways to add value to their products and services. They’re also finding new revenue streams.  

What You Don’t Know You’re Losing, Could Hurt You

There are at least 10 objectives in retaining knowledge. Many construction firms already focus on at least a few of them. Capturing lessons learned on specific projects, bringing new leaders up to speed quickly, and cutting the time it takes to get new recruits proficient in their roles are widely practiced. They’re simply aspects of effective management.

But, other objectives in retaining knowledge often fall by the wayside for several reasons. When P.M. Carrillo, and P. Chinowsky analyzed results of surveys sent to construction firms, they found six barriers to knowledge retention.

  • Lack of time
  • Excessive caution about new management ideas
  • Lack of money
  • Company cultures with low tolerance for outside ideas
  • Competitive environment between employees and departments

When you can curb the influence of the barriers, you can more easily attack the other objectives behind your knowledge retention.

Here are some tips to help you:

  • Capture knowledge before people leave the company
  • Create a knowledge-sharing culture
  • Provide mentorships and apprenticeships that link seasoned employees with new employees
  • Prevent the loss of customer knowledge
  • Prevent loss of technical knowledge
  • Prevent loss of operational knowledge
  • Develop or redesigning your education and training programs

It’s Easier to Get Explicit

Organizations have a couple of forms of knowledge. Explicit knowledge comes from data and facts, and in an operational sense, things like rules and procedures are also explicit. You can easily transfer explicit knowledge from person to person. 

Construction, however, has lagged in collecting and analyzing the growing volume of data because it’s been slow to uptake the digital technology that does so well at cataloging and analyzing. So, the challenge is to improve your collection and use of digital data. 

Here are some tactics to help out:

  • Not all of your old paper-based data needs to come into the 21st century. So, review what you’re holding onto from the perspective of the value it provides for your current operations. If it’s vital, make it digital. 
  • Of the data remaining that you want to mine and use, decide what form is best. You could digitize text-based items so they’re in searchable formats. The idea is to use formats that make it easy for you to share that information across digital systems.
  • Convert your business and project processes to digital processes in order to minimize the paper and take advantage of mobile and cloud technology.

Tacit Knowledge is Essential

The second type of organizational knowledge is tacit knowledge, and it has very little to do with computers and managing information. According to the authors Hvorecký, Šimúth and Lipovská tacit knowledge is “personal experience, perceptions, insights, aptitudes and know-how that are implied or indicated but not actually expressed––they are hidden in the minds of their owners.” 

This knowledge is really tough to capture, and even harder to preserve. But, the organizations that pull it off stand to save themselves the agony of repeating mistakes. If you want to hang on to this type of knowledge, it helps to have the right culture; one where knowledge is sought, and knowledge is shared. To encourage that type of culture, researchers recommend championing these traits in your company: 

  • Reciprocity: a sharing culture with emphasis on giving as well as getting
  • Shared vision: a simple company vision that appeals to a broad base of values
  • Trust: people are treated fairly, and honestly, and they’re on board with extending those courtesies to others
  • Teamwork: people have a sense of belonging to a group with shared goals

Knowledge is Draining Right Out The Door

Whether it’s from retirements, or people quitting and moving to other companies, many construction firms are seeing a lot of knowledge walk out the door. This tacit knowledge has been invisibly solving constructability issues, employee issues, and large scale business issues. But once it’s gone, you’ll suddenly find there are gaps in the knowledge of how to do things, who to contact, and where to find critical answers for ongoing business problems.

When you are trying to prevent this knowledge loss, you’re trying to capture what made people successful, according to Salvatore Parise, Rob Cross, and Thomas H. Davenport, writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review. When someone with even just a few year’s tenure decides to leave, they take “subject-matter expertise, organizational memory of why certain key decisions were made and awareness of past company projects (the results of which may never have been documented).”

They also take knowledge about independent relationship networks, the way those networks work, and inside information on the relationships themselves. This kind of knowledge is complex, and is critical for getting things done. Unfortunately, there’s no easy, quick solution to corral and save this knowledge. The management experts above say binding it all in manuals and databases isn’t very effective. 

It Takes A Process

That’s because even when people find the knowledge they’re seeking, they won’t have the related context and will likely either incorrectly interpret it, or discount its value. Knowledge compilation efforts also fall short by failing to account for relationships.  

The answer is to use an “organizational network analysis.” Parise, Cross, and Davenport say the approach will help:

  1. Identify knowledge vulnerabilities related to individuals and networks
  2. Address knowledge-loss issues related to the role an employee plays in the network.

Today, there are very few, far-reaching efforts that compare in importance to keeping your knowledge, and expanding its usefulness. But, it is a journey where you only need to take the first steps to begin reaping rewards.


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