Lost! Where did our knowledge go?

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 10, 2006

3 Min Read

Not surprisingly, as we go about our business collaborating and sharing information, we never stop to think about what happens to the knowledge we create and how it will be tapped into in the future.

But we really should take a step back and think about this.  Let's take a look.

My colleague Sachin Anand here at Basex wrote about this growing issue in a recent issue of Basex:TechWatch and I am pleased to reprint it here for your study and consideration.


Knowledge is perhaps the most important asset any company holds.  While other capital assets may hold greater monetary value, or intrinsic worth, knowledge is the primary factor in utilizing those other assets.  For example, it is largely admitted, aside from lingering conspiracy theories, that NASA scientists were able to send astronauts to the moon in 1969 using the famous Apollo shuttle.  What is not admitted, or even known by most people, is the fact that NASA could not successfully send astronauts to the moon today.  Not only have vital blueprints, such as those for the Saturn rocket, been lost but other documents and data from the Apollo launches have become relics of a former era.  The piles of data and documents stored in NASA warehouses do not have an automated retrieval system.  Finding specific answers to questions about the Apollo missions could prove to be as difficult as finding the proverbial needle.    

NASA's knowledge continuity crisis is a shocking example, but not necessarily one with large-scale consequences for the U.S. economy.  What will be affecting the U.S. economy in a large way will be the year 2010.  In 2010, the number of workers in the labor force over 55 years of age (those of the Baby Boomer generation) will reach an estimated 26.6 million people.  To put things in perspective, in four years this group will be larger then the current population of Venezuela, and over triple the current population of New York City.  This drastic change in the employment landscape has significant consequences for the U.S. economy. 

The greatest problem that the Baby Boomer retirement situation presents is the amount of knowledge that is at risk of being lost.  80% of an organization's critical knowledge is held in the heads of its employees, with only 20% being formally documented, meaning that companies will witness the majority of their knowledge and know-how walk out the door with their retiring employees.  If loss of knowledge affected one of the nation's most technologically advanced agencies, NASA, then what can we expect the severity of a knowledge loss to be for the U.S. economy?  The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that one in five baby boomers in executive, administrative and managerial positions will retire by 2008.  Retirement will not only cause knowledge to depart companies, but it will also take with it the management that is supposed to keep that knowledge within the company. 

While the severity of baby boomers retiring is in itself worthy of panic, the time to panic is not now.  Right now is the time to begin the restructuring and rethinking of knowledge continuity management in the workplace.  Many authors in this field currently discuss the need to retain the Baby Boomer labor force for as long as possible, through practices such as part-time hiring and outside consulting.  Unfortunately, delaying the process of retirement is only a short-term answer to a long-term problem.  Instead, knowledge retention through advanced knowledge worker tools and technology will be the long-term answer.  Collaborative Business Environments are the first step towards appropriate restructuring of the knowledge economy workplace.  By increasing communication, improving document management, and enhancing information retrieval, CBE's provide companies with a digital knowledge retention system.  Eliminating reliance on tacit knowledge is the first step towards avoiding a knowledge continuity crisis.

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