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How To Extract Knowledge From Experts Before It's Lost

Posted on July 10, 2014 at 08:35 AM

If, on his last day of employment before retiring, a man tried to walk out the door with a favorite personal computer he used at work, what would happen? Even if the company appreciated his expertise and commitment, they likely wouldn't let him leave with a computer.

Now, what would happen if that same employee walked out on his last day without sharing any of his expertise? Business as usual or would someone stop him and beg for him to share his expertise before leaving? I’m guessing you know the answer.

The knowledge that experts possess can be very valuable yet it’s often overlooked because it isn’t tangible.

To make things more difficult, experts don’t always know what makes them an expert. The difficulty experts have in explaining their knowledge is understandable since they’ve acquired the majority of it slowly over the years through experience. To the expert, their knowledge often feels more like intuition rather than something that could be extracted, codified, and put to use.

While tapping the knowledge of experts isn’t always an easy process, it’s something companies should be taking advantage of. By sharing their knowledge, experts can help the organization create more effective training experiences as well as improve performance and insights across the organization.

In the book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein presents a five-step process for extracting knowledge from experts, which he calls cognitive task analysis.

How To Extract Knowledge From Experts

1. Identify the sources of expertise
Where is the expertise in the organization?

2. Assay the knowledge
How difficult will it be to extract the knowledge and put it to use? Will the costs of extracting the knowledge (interviews, analyses, distribution, etc.) be greater than the benefit?

3. Extract the knowledge
Interview the experts to understand how they think and make decisions. Often this involves listening to stories in search of the cues and patterns the expert used in decision making.

4. Codify the knowledge
How will the knowledge be shared? Will it be part of an eLearning course? Will it be included in a learning portal for reference? How will the knowledge be made tangible?

5. Apply the knowledge
Knowledge becomes power when it’s put into action. If the knowledge from the expert won’t be used, then is it worth going through the time, effort, and cost of extracting it?

The importance of extracting and sharing knowledge isn’t limited to just experts in formal knowledge transfer interviews. While it likely wouldn’t be feasible or cost-effective for every organization to formally extract information from every employee, informal knowledge sharing among employees can generate insights that lead to innovations.

The Benefits of Informal Knowledge Sharing

The next time you jot down a quick note onto a small yellow adhesive piece of paper, you can thank knowledge sharing.

Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, was attempting to make a strong adhesive. The results of his work were the exact opposite of what he wanted—a very weak adhesive. Despite not being successful in what he set out to achieve, Spencer shared the results of his “failed” invention with others at the company in case anyone had a use for it.

A few years later another scientist at 3M, Art Fry, was having trouble keeping his bookmark from falling out of place while singing in the church choir. Suddenly, Art remembered the weak adhesive and now had an idea for the perfect bookmark. The original project that “failed” now turned into the Post-It Note, a hugely successful product with four thousand varieties sold in over a hundred countries.

The Post-It Note is a result of a culture that openly encourages the sharing of knowledge and ideas. With the culture of sharing, it’s not surprising that 3M has continued to be an innovative company, being awarded over five hundred patents in 2012.

Knowledge Sharing

“This kind of culture has nothing to do with the kind of industry 3M is in. Even an industry that is less collaborative by the nature of its product or service can benefit from sharing. Huge improvements can happen just by getting a fresh set of eyes on the work. Hearing one person’s solution to a problem can inform someone else how to solve a problem of their own. Isn’t this the idea of learning— to pass on our knowledge to others?”
- Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't

Whether through informal channels or through interviews with experts, the open sharing of knowledge would improve innovation, creativity, and business results at many, if not all organizations. While many organizations focus on hiring the best talent, they’d benefit just as much to extract actionable knowledge from internal resources.

For more on this topic, read about the benefits of knowledge sharing and the knowledge sharing paradox.

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