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Overview of General Best Practices

Attracting, developing, and retaining a knowledgeable work force is a major issue for senior management teams, but many are not yet aware of the scope of the problem or potential solutions such as knowledge management. In 2002, 24 sponsors and nine best-practice partner organizations (two organizations participated both as sponsor and best-practice partner organization), joined with the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) in a study (conducted over a five-month period) to identify how the principles, tools, and practices of knowledge management can be applied to retain valuable knowledge before it leaves the organization with exiting employees and transfer that knowledge to the organization’s new members.

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To address the challenge of retaining and transferring tacit and explicit knowledge across their respective organizations, the best-practice partners involved a study developed a toolkit of approaches. Figure 1 shows the major categories of approaches each partner organization uses in its knowledge retention efforts. Within many of these categories, partners leveraged previously existing tools and skills to address retirement, attrition, and internal redeployment.

Partners report that internal networks, the documentation of the work flow/process (i.e., repositories), and project milestone reviews are the most frequently used approaches for capturing tacit knowledge. For partners, the most effective approaches were project milestone reviews, communities of practice (CoPs) and internal networks, conferences for knowledge sharing, and interviews. After-Action Reviews are reported as effective almost as frequently.

For explicit knowledge, the survey and site visit data indicated that 67 percent of partners rely heavily on collaboration tools for capturing explicit knowledge and indicated that use of these is part of employees’ work flow or daily activities. Other tools used to capture explicit knowledge include content management systems, document management systems, and shared folders or drives. The most effective approaches to capture explicit data are CoP work spaces, engagement team databases, issues systems, decision support systems, and collaboration tools.

As for the effectiveness of approaches for knowledge transfer, partners indicated that the most effective approaches are communities of practice, face-to-face team or  department meetings, e-mail, one-on-one consultation with an expert, and apprenticeship programs. With the exception of e-mail, all of these approaches involve a face-to- face or personal component.

All study participants report the importance of measuring ROI and evaluating the effectiveness of transfer.

The major objectives of the best-practice organizations parallel those of sponsors. In rank order, these objectives are:

  • build a knowledge-sharing culture in the organization,
  • prepare new hires more quickly,
  • capture valuable knowledge as employees leave the organization,
  • capture project lessons learned for re-use,
  • prevent the loss of technical knowledge, and
  • provide newer/younger employees with access to more experienced/knowledgeable employees.


APQC discovered some additional overarching findings that provide guidance on how to successfully
retain valuable knowledge

  1. The best way to retain valuable knowledge in the face of attrition or downsizing is to build and sustain
    systemic knowledge management approaches. Best-practice organizations in this study embedded their knowledge retention efforts in their overall knowledge management strategy.
  2. To identify what knowledge was critical to capture, 89 percent of the partners had discussions with senior management and interviews with employees or subject matter experts. The next most frequently used approach was communities of practice. Partners rarely interview departing employees because it may be too late to capture knowledge at that time. When study participants were asked to share the specific criteria used in their organization to gauge the knowledge, “relevance of the knowledge to the business strategy” surfaced as the most important criteria.
  3. The most effective way to capture, retain, and transfer valuable knowledge is to embed that process into the work flow. This not only retains the context, but also links the sources and creators of knowledge while they are still available to learn from each other. Examples of this abound: After-Action Reviews, team meetings, and communities of practice. It takes a conscious and disciplined approach to make it happen.

    Study participants report that project reviews and milestone reviews are most effective. After-the-fact tacit knowledge codification is better than nothing, but it loses the richness of context and dialogue; it is critical to facilitate people-to people learning or tacit knowledge transfer during the process itself. For example, each Corning employee builds knowledge in project teams and relies on synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication to transfer and build knowledge. (Examples of synchronous communications are phone calls and videoconferences, and examples of asynchronous knowledge sharing are shared files and e-mails.)
  4. The study partners rely on communities of practice to embed and transfer organizational knowledge. Partners remarked that tacit knowledge—the most valuable and difficult knowledge to distil in any organization—is best retained through communities of practice and networks. At the World Bank, building informal networks, identifying the right leaders, supporting and enhancing grassroots communities, integrating with core business processes, and balancing creativity and accountability are all integral components of successful communities of practice. The fact that the World Bank’s communities exist in support of its core business has also contributed to its success in knowledge sharing and retention.
  5. Cultural changes require understanding the impact of formal evaluation and performance, creating rewards and awards for teamwork, understanding the need for knowledge expositions and fairs (the creation of an innovation marketplace), and sharing stories that emphasize the desired knowledge-sharing behaviour. Siemens, Corning, and the World Bank embed knowledge sharing into their formal rewards and recognition systems, such as performance appraisal. Best Buy also provides special recognition and prizes for outstanding examples of knowledge sharing role models.
  6. This study did not find any unquestionably superior application or technology for knowledge retention. Most organizations use common basic tools, such as collaborative applications, data repositories, e-mail, and videoconferencing.
  7. Best-practice organizations typically have three critical elements in their knowledge management and retention support structures: senior management support, a central knowledge management support group, and the involvement of different business units or functions in the initiative. The study partners all have strong, active support from senior-level executives, and all have an ongoing knowledge management group responsible for stewarding the process.
  8. The reported costs for knowledge retention initiatives are less than knowledge management initiatives in APQC’s prior studies, apparently due to the fact that best-practice organizations build on knowledge management tools and skills already in place and often build retention activities into the existing work flow.
  9. The knowledge management groups at study partners often work closely with human resources teams to design and implement knowledge retention strategies, including hiring employees who will work effectively in a knowledge-sharing environment. For example, the knowledge management team within Xerox Connect worked with HR to establish its Knowledge Management Practitioner Trainee program, a mentoring program for new hires.  Additionally, HR now assesses the knowledge sharing behaviours of potential new-hire candidates by asking related questions designed to show if a person shares or hoards knowledge.
  10. Best-practice organizations measure the effectiveness of knowledge retention initiatives through a variety of methods. Partners and sponsors reported that the most effective methods to measure the success of knowledge transfer are conducting user surveys, tracking the number of knowledge objects accessed and used, tracking knowledge transfer activities, and capturing KM success meaningful stories. Most struggle to find measures that convince financial analysts, but as long as their senior operating managers can see the value directly themselves, their support is ensured. Best Buy, for example, has developed a balanced scorecard measurement system that tracks and links knowledge management behavioural change with business outcomes.
  11. Best-practice organizations demonstrate a link between knowledge management and organizational learning. Siemens, the World Bank, Corning, Xerox Connect, and Best Buy are all in the process of taking the valuable knowledge captured and embedding it into the learning process. Corning’s vision is for knowledge sharing and organizational learning to become a core competency, which will enable it to “out-learn” the competition and prepare Corning to lead the next wave of change in technology innovation.