Retirement: Companies Keep Know-how in Place

Some companies are taking proactive steps to retain knowledge.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Another sign of the times is that vendors that provide information services are becoming much more focused on knowledge retention and management. One such example is Knovel, New York, which offers web-based information services targeted at engineers.

"The original idea was to deliver something that hands information down better than a book and there were already a lot of online services doing that in the areas of finance and law, for example," explains Chris Forbes, CEO.

The challenge for Knovel has been to integrate what it supplies with what the end-user actually needs. "So we provide not only the service, for example, physical property data, but the tools on top that allow engineers to manipulate information and pull it easily into their workflows." He cites work carried out recently with Bechtel. Originally the demand was for access to a good library. But now the E&C company has a series of internal web-based applications delivered by a central engineering group. "They need this institutional knowledge, especially with large numbers of people retiring soon."

A major petrochemical customer expects 50% of its engineering workforce to retire in the next five years, he adds. "So they have many things to do and one is invest in Knovel because we provide continuity for a certain class of information."

"We recognize that there are issues and things that need to be done, for example, the easier capture of tribal knowledge. So we are working on that and hopefully by the end of the year we will have a new tool that will make information more easily available to both the individual and the company," says Forbes.

A Crucial Need
Developments that help to improve efficiency are vital, notes Roger Parsons, senior process development engineer with Lubrizol, Wickliffe, Ohio, a Knovel customer.

Over the past two decades Lubrizol has made large workflow improvements by flattening organizational structure, using cross-functional teams, providing better connectivity to work faster and more in parallel and better anticipating downstream issues. "This has worked so well for us that we can now generate information faster than existing human/software interfaces can truly master," he says.

Two opportunities are emerging for capturing knowledge in the broadest sense.

"First, we can no longer afford to wait for that final encyclopedic report which was the norm 20 years ago," Parson explains. "The ongoing storm of data, insights and inquiry must be shared broadly as it unfolds, if we are to harness the full wisdom of our teams to speed innovation. Second, the profound knowledge that builds from myriad anecdotes and incomplete or even failed, but informative, studies can be too confined to the heads of technical professionals. And the gestalt that comes from that collection often drives our most useful and commercially valuable technical insights."

Natural career progressions create turnover. "In my department — process development — we might get three to five years from the average engineer. Transitioning their undocumented insights and observations to their successors may be our greatest untapped efficiency gain," he says.

For knowledge capture in general, Lubrizol, like many other companies, has adopted the latest integrated control systems and enterprise resource planning software, and has highly developed its intranet.

Parsons emphasizes that next knowledge capture gain must be organic — it can't be an extra task on top of data generation, interpretation and real-time sharing within work teams. E-mail exemplifies this organic aspect, he says, but its searchability is ripe for improvement, and content organization by its nature rarely approaches that of the average Wikipedia entry. The Internet's weblog model might play a part, but he wonders whether it's possible to successfully adapt it to the less populous, more specialized and more secure environment of an individual company.

Parsons speculates that the transition to new methodologies may ultimately prove generational: "New graduates don't just learn to use new web tools, like older technical professionals do. They internalize the new ways of thinking, making them uniquely second nature. The generation that learns to expect instant access to seemingly limitless information at home seems unlikely to tolerate less mind-enhancement at work."

The path of the coming revolutions in knowledge capture, sharing and retention/retrieval will be hard to predict, he says, but some of the heaviest lifting may fall to specialty information companies such as Knovel.

For example, Lubrizol already uses Knovel to provide Google-like searchability to engineers who know and expect that kind of tool. The searches give ranked content hits on complex search strings from within a broad collection of key technical references such as various engineering handbooks and physical property data. "This makes their entire library as portable as our laptops, and as quickly and usefully searchable as the public Internet."

Nevertheless, Parsons believes that the untapped potential is much larger: "The companies that master this coming marriage of personal grey matter with silicon will have a profound edge, so long as their focus remains on enhancing what their companies already do best — making and selling their products and services."


Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

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