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Keeping Crucial Knowledge From Leaving Forever (Perigean Technologies – Public Power Magazine)

As those of you on our mailing list will know, we (K3-Cubed) have recently entered into a strategic alliance with Perigean-Technologies. These guys are at the top of their game and it is a pleasure to be working with like-minded colleagues who are driven towards developing the people-centric benefits of KM. The article below features Brian Moon, Perigean’s Chief Technology Officer, and you can see the synergy between our two ways of thinking – just take a look at some of our more recent blog entries, such as ‘Knowledge leaks: don’t stick a thumb in it, KM it!

Public Power Magazine
Keeping Crucial Knowledge From Leaving Forever

March-April 2011
Vol. 69, No. 2
By Bridget Mintz Testa
March-April 2011

Although the Great Recession is keeping many people on the job who might otherwise have retired, sooner or later the Baby Boom generation will say goodbye to the workplace. Before they go, utilities need to capture their expertise, much of which took decades to acquire. Fortunately, that effort is not the hit-and-miss proposition it used to be. Today, methods exist that utilities can use to help experts reveal their knowledge, which can then be documented, retained and used for future operations and training. These methods are variously known as knowledge capture, knowledge transfer or knowledge elicitation, but whatever name is used, it’s the same thing: saving expertise that would otherwise be lost.

The first step in knowledge capture is to determine if your organization is going to lose valuable expertise. “You might not know if you really have a knowledge capture and transfer problem,” said David Ziebell, senior project manager for the Nuclear Maintenance Application Center at EPRI.

“If you’ve got three years and no money, you might use mentoring; but if you’ve got three weeks, mentoring won’t work,” Ziebell said. “Don’t tell the retiring employee to write down everything he knows. Have him explain the procedures and processes for what he is an expert in. If nothing else, you’ll at least get that area covered.”

Surprisingly, small utilities may have the fewest problems with knowledge capture and transfer. “They’re so small that everybody knows everything,” Ziebell said.

With knowledge capture, be specific about what you need. “You don’t have to go over 30 years of experience,” said Brian Moon, chief technology officer of Perigean Technologies, a com-pany that offers knowledge elicitation services and training to utilities. “You go over the topics that make up a person’s expertise.”

Identifying the expertise is important, but so is evaluating it. Robert R. Hoffman, senior research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, offers a six-step method for knowledge evaluation in his paper, “Knowledge Elicitation Success Stories’” (which can be found at

“Think of five people in your organization who have knowledge that is critical to the organization and yet remains undocumented,” Hoffman wrote. “For each person, think of five critical job functions they perform. For each of the functions, ballpark the frequency with which it has to be performed and the approximate time it takes for the expert to accomplish the primary goals.

“From this you can calculate: what is the total operational cost of achieving all the critical functions?

For each function, list five consequences to the organization if the function were lost, Hoffman wrote. From this estimate you can answer the question, “When would the revenue stream dry up if the organization lost that expertise?”

“For each of the experts, how many years of salary and training costs did it take the or-ganization to grow the expertise in the first place?” Hoffman wrote. “From this you can calculate: looking out 10 years, what would be the total cost of re-growing the expertise?

“If your identified experts are all age 50 or greater, these sums will allow you to estimate how long your organization has to exist in a worst case (upper bounds) and dangerous case (lower bounds) of loss of expertise.”

After figuring this, you should be able to estimate what it would take to have a trained, full-time knowledge elicitor, he said. “The potential risk from loss of expertise is far, far greater than the potential cost of obtaining proficient knowledge elicitors.”

Why does an organization need people who are trained in knowledge elicitation? Why not just have the expert do a “memory dump” into a document or a wiki?

“Experts can’t always articulate their knowledge,” said Moon. “They can’t write it down or enter it into a database.” Surprisingly, experts often don’t know what they know, and they can’t express it or document it.

“We found that 60 to 80 percent of knowledge is tacit,” Zie-bell said. “Experts see the world differently from the way others do. They see patterns they’ve seen before but don’t recognize how they see it. You can’t ask them what their pattern is—they don’t know. You have to extract them. The patterns are the tac-it knowledge. They’re transformed experience—transformed into a framework for diagnosis. Experts don’t realize they have this knowledge. Once you identify the patterns, you can write them down and teach people how to use them for thinking and problem-solving.”

This pattern identification—knowledge elicitation—proceeds through one-on-one interviews with experts. The knowledge elicitor “starts with researching the domain,” Hoffman said, with the domain being the expert’s area of unique knowledge. “You build a preliminary database of knowledge, workflow, task analysis. Then you do the knowledge elicitation, take that information and compare it to the knowledge database you already have.”

One productive interview technique is talking about “tough case” incidents that stretched the expert’s knowledge and skill. “You can talk about the process of start-up testing, rules, heuristics, but there are also major incidents,” Moon said. “Living through a lot of such incidents and providing feedback is a way of becoming an expert. So interview people about these.”

Perhaps the most effective approach, however, is the critical decision method. “You invite the expert to remember previous cases that were especially challenging and difficult,” Hoffman said. “Pick one, and ask the expert to tell the story in more detail—construct a timeline of decision points, and then ask the expert questions about the different points. Integrate it all into a narrative, a list of decision requirements, which includes the required information at each decision point, the timelines, etc. Then move on to another critical decision.”

Concept mapping is a tool that allows knowledge elicitation to graphically represent the concepts an expert discusses, along with their relationships. “The important concepts go toward the top, and everything branches off from that,” Moon said. “For example, you’re interviewing a nuclear engineer who’s been involved in a lot of start-up testing. Lay out the steps, but capture the heuristics in a map. Every concept on the map is explicitly linked to other concepts, and relationships are explicitly explained.”

When created on a computer, concept maps can link to supporting documents, such as glossaries, procedure manuals, spreadsheets, photographs, drawings and video. It’s not unusual for a three- to four-day knowledge elicitation with an expert to produce 30 or 40 concept maps. They document the expert’s unique knowledge and can become the basis for training materials, procedures documents and more.

Knowledge elicitation takes time and there is no “magic bullet.” Hoffman has a method for determining the effectiveness of a knowledge elicitation. He calculates the ratio of the number of new and informative propositions per minute of elicitation time. “For many methods, the answer is less than 1,” he said. “Concept mapping can yield more than 2. That might not sound like much, but even one new proposition per minute is really efficient. The critical decision method and concept mapping are demonstrably efficient.”

A free concept mapping tool, CmapTools, is available from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition ( What you’ll see on this page is itself a concept map with clickable links for downloading the software and obtaining other information. Both CmapTools Program and CmapServers can be downloaded from this site.

Several books on knowledge elicitation can help you learn the method. The Electric Power Research Institute has a free handbook that you can download, Guidelines for Capturing Valuable Undocumented Knowledge from Energy Industry Personnel. “It’s a cookbook approach to figuring out what you’re looking for, how to get it, and how to document it,” Ziebell said. “Anyone with a training background can usually do it.”

Other sources include Moon’s forthcoming book, Applied Concept Mapping, and several books by Hoffman, including his latest, Working Minds: A Practioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis and Perspectives on Cognitive Task Analysis.

Training is the natural successor to knowledge capture. In 2005, executive management at Santee Cooper in South Carolina realized that institutional knowledge was walking out the door as experienced employees retired. After taking time to capture knowledge such as the utility’s history and culture, board protocol, general HR issues, investments, generation construction and transmission and distribution/retail operations, the “STEP” program was established in 2007.

STEP, or Shaping Tomorrow’s Energy Professionals, is taught when needed, from February to November, in eight two-day sessions. It has three components: company knowledge, leadership and personal development.

“The biggest aspects of STEP are the company knowledge sessions taught by executives,” said Ken Lott, manager of training and development. “They cover structurally and strategically how things work on a daily basis.”

The knowledge sessions cover every aspect of Santee Cooper’s business. In addition to the topics listed previously, insurance and risk management, state and federal government structure and legislative/regulatory processes, risk management, regulatory issues, financial planning and much more are taught.

The leadership component, presented by a third party provider, “goes beyond effective management to effective leadership,” Lott said. The skills presented include negotiation, matching leadership style to the employees’ needs, balancing work and life, leading a team, producing results, creating a vision, and understanding people’s personalities to better motivate them. “All these help elevate the idea of leadership,” he said.

The personal development training includes an introduction to the board of directors, executive mentoring via three sessions with an assigned executive plus a session with President and CEO Lonnie Carter, and a six-month program with a personal development coach. The coaching is based on the 360-degree feedback method.

Lott said he thinks others could easily adopt Santee Cooper’s program, even small utilities. “We use internal talent to present this information,” he said. “There is up-front training for these trainers in developing a lesson plan, deciding what to teach, determining what they want students to retain and presenting the information in the best way.”

Other utilities might hasten to follow Santee Cooper’s lead in developing training sessions from knowledge capture projects. “After all, there needs to be a major uptick in knowledge elicitation in the next five years because of baby boomer retirements,” Moon said.

One comment on “Keeping Crucial Knowledge From Leaving Forever (Perigean Technologies – Public Power Magazine)

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