Many businesses struggle to effectively capture, retain and share their valuable information (hear Elon Musk’s interesting examples here). In this post we will explore how the accumulation of information leads to progress, how information can be lost and what you can do about it.
Knowledge Growth leads to Progress
One of the key attributes that has allowed humans to build such advanced technology is our capability to store, retain and transfer knowledge efficiently. Knowledge or information, has allowed us to ‘build on the shoulders of giants’, by accumulating it over time.
The idea that we build upon already available knowledge is usually taken for granted in day to day life, but it’s easy to understand with an example. Take your smartphone, the current hardware and software is the result of decades of incremental improvement by taking what we already knew and improving it each time.
This is also true within a business internally, with regards to intellectual property. This is information that is proprietary to the company and can differentiate a business or give them a competitive edge.
Take Boeing as an example, a dominant player in the aerospace industry. Each new plane that they develop is guided or based upon previous designs they have made. This decreases development cost, reduces development time and gives a solid foundation based on a previously proven design.
But it’s not only proprietary product information that is of value to a company. Business processes and the collective knowledge of individual employees is also a form of information that a company leverages, this is particularly the case in service based industries.
Can information be lost? Absolutely. We should all by now know the importance of data backups. If Boeing lost all of its designs and product data, it would be a devastating blow to the company. A lot of R&D would have to be repeated and they would be effectively starting from scratch.
But the large scale destruction of data is not the only cause of information loss we need to think about. For example, a much less tangible form of information loss occurs when an employee leaves. The knowledge and experience that an employee departs with, that is not retained by the company can be a significant setback in both time and money.
This is especially true if the individual was senior. If you have a quantifiable amount of turn over, you could be losing valuable information all the time.
Capturing and retaining knowledge from your employees into some form of knowledge management system is critical to ensure you aren’t constantly reinventing the ‘wheel’ in your company. That every bit of progress is retained and that you can build on it, even if someone departs.
While the loss of information has a clear negative impact, we also need to appreciate that if information is not readily accessible, it’s almost as good as being lost.
The website holding answers to all of your questions is useless if you can’t find it. By the same token if some piece of information critical to the broader company is hidden in an individual’s inbox, then it’s useless. The same could be said of large amounts of paper documents stored in boxes, virtually inaccessible without some serious filing system (but then still highly inefficient).
The major utility of the internet is being able to search it efficiently, through search engines. You type in what you want and in less than a second it presents the information you’re looking for. Without search engines, the function of the internet would be reduced to people only typing in URL’s directly.
But the real power of the internet is searching for information you don’t know exists (research), or don’t know where it exists. There is no search engine for people’s minds (yet!), nor the printed text on paper documents. You have to know what you’re looking for and where (or who with) to find it, it’s as good as the internet without search.
On the business digital side, poorly organised file servers can make it difficult to find what you want. In-document searching is difficult if not impossible and when the server has a large volume of data on it, you can forget it.
Another problem commonly seen in SME’s is that certain knowledge is only held by senior individuals in the company, simple because of their experience. These individuals are then the ‘go-to’ people that more junior staff constantly need to interact with to extract information they need.
The problems with this scenario are many. Firstly, by definition there are always more junior staff than there are senior staff, which creates a bottleneck. Secondly senior individuals are generally time poor, which means their accessibility and thus the accessibility of information that junior staff need, is low. Thirdly, when they are available, any time that senior staff spend providing information to junior staff means they aren’t spending that time on more important higher level activities.
You combine all of these issues and the impact on productivity, for both junior and senior staff can be significant.
In the next post I will dig into what the solution is. As you may have guessed, it’s a knowledge management system.