The Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday on the continued struggle that companies face with trying to pass knowledge from one worker to another (requires subscription).
The conundrum is that while people learn best from other people – a system that relies on employee word of mouth for knowledge transfer does not scale. In such a system, people only learn from those people they know, and in many cases there is just not enough opportunity for this type of knowledge transfer to occur (i.e., field repair workers, work at home folks, etc.).
Technology to help with knowledge management has had spotty track record so far – with the Wall Street journal citing an Bain study which ranked knowledge management tools near the bottom in effectiveness amongst 25 management tools.
Apparently some companies have had success with a brute force approach – by forcing people to document what they know in a central database. They claim a virtuous cycle with people contributing voluntarily once there is a critical mass of content in those knowledge repositories.
Perhaps the quote from Hadley Reynolds with the Delphi Group captures the real issue – “We don’t necessarily understand enough yet about optimizing the conditions for knowledge work, even though we’ve been doing it for 25 years. Most organizations are still managing as if we were in the industrial era.”