Document Internal Knowledge Before It’s Lost


Posted January 7, 2020
Is your company on the verge of losing thousands of years’ worth of accumulated knowledge?
This question isn’t hyperbole. Pew Research reports that an average of 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 (retirement age) every day. The accelerating loss of an entire generation from the workforce is bringing knowledge issues to the forefront. And we’re talking about a lot of knowledge. One organization told The Harvard Business Review (HBR) that they expected the next wave of 700 retirements to equal the loss of 27,000 years' worth of experience (an average of about 38 years per person).
As Industry Week writes of another company facing a similar situation: “Suddenly, knowledge management became crucial to the company’s continued success.”
This is an issue with tangible, quantifiable implications.
HBR describes a company that revamped its internal reporting system to the tune of $6 million over two years only to discover that the new system didn't meet their needs. The project was undertaken shortly after a 30-year IT director retired and then passed away. “The new IT director simply didn’t ask the right questions of the vendor," the CIO told HBR. "He asked if they could do it — but not how they were going to do it. He didn’t understand how most of our overseas businesses work. [The departed director] would never have made that mistake."
In other words, the loss of experienced workers can lead to “brain drain,” with invaluable expertise and knowledge being lost as employees retire or otherwise leave the organization.
How can you preserve knowledge within an organization?
The good news is that businesses have options to capture, curate, and pass on internal knowledge and expertise. Options include any form of knowledge document or media, including standard operating procedures, documented policies, memos and reports, and wikis and knowledge bases hosted on internal intranets.
That said, there's a hidden dimension to this question. Writing is fundamental to each of these approaches and even multimedia options, like instructional videos, require written scripts. However, if the writing is poor – unclear, confusing, or otherwise hard to understand – these documents may fail to accomplish their purpose or even prove to be counterproductive.
Other hidden pitfalls loom as well, as we describe here. For example, it's common to write these kinds of documents as though a colleague is reading them, but if the actual audience includes new hires, it may be necessary to use more basic language, a different vocabulary, and to approach the material from a more rudimentary angle.
It's also crucial to capture "why." To the experienced professional, the value of the knowledge may be self-evident, but that may not be true of future readers. Preserving knowledge does no good if no one pays attention or follows it because they don't understand its value.
When capturing this information, be sure to use your best writers, or seek out specialized training for developing these kinds of documents (like "How to write usable, user-friendly Standard Operating Procedures").
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.  
Links: Pew Research, The Harvard Business Review, Industry Week, internal links