Mining for Knowledge

Mining for Knowledge

By Judi Bachmann and Len Ashby

What would you do if your staff walked out the door taking valuable corporate information with them? Judi Bachmann and Len Ashby explain how you can capture critical knowledge before it's too late.

Accessing knowledge from the minds and experience of the people creating and using it, at the best of times, is usually very difficult but often critical to business decisions. However, when they leave, capturing what the domain expert knows can become an essential requirement for effective knowledge management in many organisations.

In the current environment of an aging workforce, retirements can mean an organisation loses significant expertise overnight. Achieving the anticipated benefits of a merger or acquisition can be premised on having and retaining the right intellectual property. When organisations outsource, how do they retain knowledge without the function and the people.

Technology is available to archive explicit information, but the sociological and human aspects of tacit knowledge acquisition are relatively unexplored.

Like copper, iron and gold before, knowledge is increasingly becoming a primary resource. Given the recognised emerging value of intellectual property, the analogy of gold prospecting can define the process of finding rich seams of wisdom amongst the dross of information overload.

There are three distinct stages to mining knowledge: discovery, extraction, processing.

Staking the claim

The debate about ownership of knowledge continues unabated. Does it belong to the person with the knowing and experience, or to the organisation which sponsored its acquisition? There are mutual opportunities for both parties if the asset is properly exploited.

Clearly, the organisation has a strong interest in securing the knowledge, whether to keep it from competitors or merely to maintain its own capacity to operate efficiently. The benefit for the individual experts of sharing their knowledge and wisdom is more complicated, but not indefinable.

The key to knowledge mining is to define a "win win" outcome for all the stakeholders.The knowledge prospector must begin by understanding who those stakeholders are - and, there are frequently more than meet the eye. Interests in the benefits often rest in multiple hands.

The primary stakeholders in the prospecting arena are the domain experts. Some will be more than willing to share their knowledge - so they can gain relief from some of their workload.

Others may relish the power and status that their unique experience brings them. Still others may see their intellectual property as job security.

The knowledge prospector, and the organisation itself, must acknowledge relevant attitudes and address them appropriately - to ensure that the gold they seek does not turn out to be 'pyrites'.

Generally, the concerns of the knowledge owners, can be met by considering the three "Rs":

1. Respect - valuing the contribution they are making in sharing their knowledge and expertise. This must be demonstrated throughout the mining process - from management's initial commitments to the acknowledgement of the results.

2. Recognition - demonstrating through words and actions where the knowledge came from. This can be done either formally within the knowledge management repository, or informally through other processes, such as existing recognition schemes or corporate communiqués.

3. Reward - providing monetary or other incentives for sharing, but also for owning and maintaining the knowledge and keeping it current, through an expanded job role or changes in workflow. Reward may include commitments that job obsolescence and redundancy will not be a consequence of knowledge sharing.

Digging for the nuggets

Once buy-in and cooperation from all of the stakeholders has been achieved, the process of identifying nuggets of wisdom will be as varied as the sources themselves and the areas in which they operate.

Often domain experts may not "consciously" understand the extent of their expertise, nor how they exercise judgment in coming to conclusions or making recommendations. Whilst no prescriptive process for extracting that wisdom is possible, a number of approaches are useful in helping domain experts to self-explore the cognitive and visceral use of their knowledge.

The experience of the prospector is vital to determine which seams are worthy of exploration and how they are mined and refined for use. The following can be useful in exploring the wealth and its value.

1. Business card - what the title says about our role and, equally importantly, what it does not indicate. Few of us have the title which recognises "all" the roles we play. Discussion of the current business card, and perhaps previous position titles, is a good ice-breaker and a way of getting at some of the history of our expertise.

2. Job description - what the position is supposed to entail, versus expectations from the incumbent or management. Like the business card, it will often promote a landslide of discussion from which real nuggets of knowledge can be easily panned.

3. Organisation chart (official and unofficial) - where we perceive our role relative to the whole picture. Charts can often be misleading if taken at face value. For example, managers with no direct reports are often an implicit acknowledgment of the value of their expertise - which cannot be adequately compensated without a title.

4. Jungle telegraph - how the informal knowledge networks perceive our know-how. By reflecting on what others seek from us, we often recognise expertise that doesn't relate to current duties but is integral to business continuity. Since knowledge management is as much about who "needs" the knowledge as who "has it", this investigation may also reveal information about key users.

5. What our protégé should know - those insights and examples which are the quintessence of the job or process, along with how we came to understand them. Anecdotes captured from this exploration may sometimes have limited relevance to current practice - but may comprise corporate wisdom which prevents history repeating its mistakes. These insights typically represent a potential rich vein - worth pursuing further.

6. Industry association involvement or conference presentations - as subject matter experts our participation in the broader sector is important. Exploring these roles often yields knowledge and expertise which represents best practice. As with the preceding approach, this can represent a primary "passion", which properly assayed, can prove especially valuable.

7. Awards cabinet - articles published, and speech gifts, often reflect external recognition for sharing knowledge in the past, which may still have relevance. These 'trophies' represent previous attempts to define and articulate our expertise.

8. Resume - what we would tell the next employer or client. Challenged to recap our career moves and achievements may release long forgotten in-sights and learning experiences which still have value today. This exercise helps us to recognise our own cumulative value.

9. Hobbies and volunteer work - concurrent pursuits or alternative perspectives on what we do away from work. These activities often use many of the same skills, knowledge and in-sights.

10. Retirement party or tombstone - what we would like to be remembered for. While we all like to be remembered for more than our work, this exercise can help to define key elements of our wisdom.

Refining the ore

Extracting knowledge from the experts is only half of the task of the knowledge prospector.

Equally important is how that knowledge is shared with others. Explicit knowledge is now intellectual property which must be passed on to new knowledge seekers through their own intellectual processes. Again, technology abounds - and confounds.

Technology and library sciences can assist in this pursuit of knowledge delivery. However, the knowledge manager must understand not only the context in which knowledge is being sought, but also the objectives and approaches likely to be driving the search for it. Most importantly, the diversity of audiences must also be explored.

To ensure that external searchers are rewarded with the right information requires not only objectivity but also empathy. We are all too familiar with websites that contain a profusion of information but from which simple answers to obvious questions remain elusive.

Is there a list of frequently asked questions? Or, an existing 'crib sheet' which enables the switchboard to find the right expert based on key words from inquirers?

The answers to these questions, explored during a knowledge mining exercise, will form the basis of the thesaurus and taxonomies, which are first steps in organising the newly acquired information for dissemination.

The subject matter experts can use their "experience" to help us define search parameters and organise the acquired knowledge for future use.

A good knowledge prospector will also have well-honed instincts and the ability to assist the knowledge management team to build effective knowledge repositories.

Working with the technologists, librarians and information managers, the role of the prospector is to provide the continuity from the source - to the organisation as a whole - and back to the source. This full circle approach ensures that any published information and encapsulated knowledge processes actually deliver the best facsimile, for that is all it can aspire to, of the subject matter expert.

Not all veins in the gold field are worth extracting and refining. However using the experience and in-sights gained from the domain experts during a knowledge mining exercise will enable organisations to add more value to their information holdings. High quality business continuity is assured - despite retirements or restructures, or other losses of valuable resources.

Judi Bachmann and Len Ashby are KM/IT consultants at Ashby BachmannContact:

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