“… what creates longevity and combats turnover in a business is making use of untapped potential within the employees and transferring the training to help each employee work at peak performance” (Awad 2004:256)
If it is not stopped, high staff turnover in a knowledge-intensive workplace can spell the end of the line for an organization whether it is due to staff cuts or defection. This is clear since the more an organization bases its existence on intellectual rather than physical assets, the more vulnerable it is to mass defection of the sources and creators of those assets. Furthermore, since the larger component of the intellectual assets lie in the tacit knowledge of the workforce, defection does not just represent the loss of creative capacity, but also of existing organizational knowledge assets.
This discussion will outline issues pertaining to knowledge-worker retention and motivation, and also address considerations regarding risk mitigation.
Knowledge workers not only deal in an organization’s “engine of production” (Kakabadse 2003:76), but also have autonomy and may be said to own the “primary means of production” (Newell 2002:27). Moreover knowledge workers should be seen as representing an investment rather than as just a labor cost (Newell 2002:69). In this light the term “Gold Collar” workers (Newell 2002:28) describes staff that are not only valuable, but also aware of their value as corporate assets (Davenport 1998:13). This form of self-aware employee represents a considerable flight risk because of their value, mobility, and the special requirements for retaining them.
In its simplest form in a work environment we can usefully regard knowledge as the product of “minds at work” (Davenport 1998:6). It is important to reflect on this plurality, and that we speak of interacting groups of workers forming a “knowledge network” (Barraba 1999:23), rather than isolated individuals. It is indeed this interconnectedness of knowledge-workers that must shape both how they are used, as well as how to keep them productive and satisfied, and how to retain them.
Given the scenario sketched in which there is already a high degree of attrition or defection of staff, it would be necessary to divide remedial action into tactical and strategic dimensions. To protect operational continuity and capacity it is important to evaluate what survival prerogatives must be addressed while longer term measures are instituted, and to act swiftly in the short term but sure-footedly over the medium and long term.
“… the goal is to link [knowledge management] projects to identifiable corporate objectives that add value to the company’s bottom line” (Awad 2004:186)
Under the rubric of tactical action and drawing from my personal experience, the following questions should be addressed as part of forming an immediate response.
- Are the skills or knowledge being lost necessary or vital for the execution of core business processes aligned with the organizational mission?
- Are the people involved undesirable for reasons such as insubordination, non team players, disruptive behavior, etc?
- Are the skills or knowledge generic and easily replaced?
Once it is concluded that the staff is valuable to the organizational mission and not easily replaced, it becomes obvious that a corresponding level of effort should be undertaken to regain, retain, and replace. It is important to dwell on the issue of alignment of knowledge processes, staffing, and corporate objectives since efforts to maintain or produce knowledge assets that are not aligned in this manner will consume resources without delivering useful productivity. Learning objectives implemented later in the recovery process must be clearly connected to the core processes of the organization. (Jansink 2005:3), and therefore so too should staffing efforts and policies.
Regain: Even if somebody has already left, it is not too late to woo them back if the reasons for dissatisfaction have been addressed, and commitment is shown to supporting knowledge work.
Retain: Urgent and vigorous efforts should be undertaken to understand the reasons for dissatisfaction, and to create a supportive and productive environment.
Replace: Since knowledge work is team-based as stated previously, a critical mass must be maintained and lost workers replaced.
At this point we may find that things get done or are accomplished in spite of the standing rules and procedures rather than because of them, and that staff are focused on simply “getting things done anyway” (Stacey 2000:80). Workers may have thus engaged in using what they see as the “ground truth” of matters by “knowing what really works on the ground” (Davenport 1998:8), and employing practices that are different to those encoded in formal directives and organizational policies.
One salient factor is what the management beliefs are with regards information exchange between individuals and how this is leading to operant behavior. Awad & Ghaziri advise us to “take a close look at how managers view knowledge transfer” (Awad 2004 :275)
The chief objective in this phase is to begin building networks of knowledge workers, and to nurture the resulting communities (De Cagna 2001:41).
Part of this process is to establish stability and continuity, as well as building the social capital (Prusak 2001:86) needed to create an appropriate climate to foster retention and drive interaction and knowledge-sharing.
It is also important to recognize that a supportive and nurturing environment is more significant to retention of knowledge workers than simply offering more money. While it is obvious that an adequate level of financial compensation is necessary to keep staff at any level, there are components of satisfaction that extend well beyond the reach of money alone, and these need to be recognized and addressed in order to keep a network of knowledge workers motivated and interested in staying with their employer.
Newell identifies four major components for satisfaction (Newell 2002:70)
- Personal growth
- Operational autonomy
- Task achievement
Money, is thus important, but not the leading driver of satisfaction.
The question that presents itself is “why bother?” – why is it necessary or a priority to keep the same staff when we could constantly replace them with younger (and cheaper) new-hires fresh from college? After all, recent graduates are eager, enthusiastic, have just learned the latest ideas, and have little baggage.
When Newell comments that we should view knowledge workers as investments rather than simply as labor costs (ibid), what is she limning for us? Why are time and tenure important, and what does it mean to say that a worker is an investment, when previously in the Taylorite view of “scientific management” we saw workers as interchangeable parts. Workers were commodities or replaceable units of production, not investments.
Nonaka splits knowledge into two distinct parts each with its own mode of learning and own mechanisms of transmission (Nonaka 1999). In this view, explicit knowledge is the form easily transferred by simply reading, attending classes, and taking notes. It is the component most easily transmitted via memos, instructions, and manuals.
It is also believed to be the smaller and less informative of the two parts.
The greater segment of knowledge is thought to be the tacit component, which according to Nonaka’s SECI model, is transferred primarily by direct observation and doing.
From a organizational point of view “Learning by doing” or the process of “Socialization” and “Internalization” in Nonaka’s SECI terminology, involves being immersed in the organization, being mentored and instructed, observing others doing the work, being observed and critiqued, and absorbing the unspoken “ground rules” (ibid) operant in the organization.
Since this obviously takes time and effort from the learner and also other productive staff members, there is an investment process that has costs and commitment far beyond that of the hiring costs, work tools, and salary package of the individual.
A further dimension is that the interaction between knowledge workers and “minds at work” process of generating knowledge leads to an ongoing learning interaction which results in capacity and production increases in not only the learner, but also in the processes they touch and the people interacting with them in the handling and production of knowledge.
Given that tacit knowledge forms the greater part of knowledge-in-use, and that the process of sharing tacit knowledge implies time and effort from others, it is clear that knowledge work requires ongoing and largely invisible investment of organizational resources and thus money.
This answers the question of “why bother” and also shows us that hiring fresh and cheaper replacements is unlikely to succeed. It further demonstrates that not only do knowledge workers tend to improve with age, but also that organizational investment takes place and that the tacit knowledge embodied in the webs of knowledge workers and in the brains of the workers themselves represents real organizational assets that are no less valuable than the physical assets like equipment and property. In fact, it leads us to recognize that the Intellectual Capital that is represented by the tacit knowledge of the workers, is part of the strategic advantage and organizational success factors.
Tactical to Strategic
The longer term and strategic view should focus on retention of knowledge workers and the creation of an environment that both supports and enhances the knowledge productivity of teams. (Jansink 2005:2).
During this phase it is important to identify the culture in which work in being carried out, further develop teams, and to create a mental and environmental space for collaborative and creative work to take place.
It is during these steps that one creates a “climate of continuity and trust” (Buchman 1998:363), in order to increase staff stability and retention. Threats to retention caused by volatility can be counteracted by making connections between knowledge workers, enabling trust, fostering cooperation, and showing a commitment to retention. There is a need to “nurture innovative and creative thinkers” and to also “encourage flexible and adaptable behaviour” (Debowski 2006:87).
Trust is of particular note, because this is a significant hedge against destructive rumours, gossip, and negativity (DiFonzo 2002), and engenders and promotes the exchange of information (Ford 2001:2) and is itself developed by the sharing of information between people (Ford 2001:23).
Ford further identifies several methods for promotion of trust:
- Open communication
- Inclusion in decision making
- Sharing critical information
- Sharing feelings and perception
Of note here is that three of the four points articulate interaction between workers rather than solitary activities, and thus underlines the need to see knowledge workers as nodes in a knowledge network and emphasizes the importance of seeing their contributions as interdependent rather than as individual or solitary actions. This requires that management understands and supports the formation of teams, and provides sponsorship for knowledge work (Awad 2004:59).
A further point can be made that teams of knowledge workers are more than the sum of their parts in the sense of being more productive on average than an equal number of solitary workers. This is borne out by examination of the output and success of teams and individuals in scientific research environments (Wuchty 2007)
With sponsorship of teams and knowledge networks in place it becomes possible to identify contributors performing as knowledge sources in specific subject areas. Rather than simply acting as solitary subject matter experts, they can be grouped into Communities of Practice (CoP) by means of Collaborative Tools (Schrage 1997).
By grouping knowledge communities in this manner, we are able to engage in learning projects which allow us to access and have multiple use of knowledge which is embedded in the particular contexts and communities involved. (Newell 2002:128)
Since building CoPs requires a bottom-up collaborative approach, it involves trust between workers and between workforce and management, as well as worker involvement and commitment (Newell 2002:120).
As we exit this phase, it is important to review the corporate culture and behaviour, and to ask very critically if we have an organization composed of “knowledgeable individuals” or whether we have developed into a “knowledge-focused organization” (Klein 1998:2)
Long Term – The Learning Organization
“Learning organizations provide a facilitative environment where learning is highly encouraged” (Marquardt 1994:53)
Becoming a “knowledge-focused organization” would have required all the steps already covered, notably retaining staff and motivating them to engage in knowledge producing activities with sharing of information and knowledge forming the core of the Communities of Practice needed to support organizational goals.
It should be apparent from this kind of structure however that management would cease to be in control of information flow and become reliant on the workers to be self-managing in this regard.
An even greater aspect of this phenomenon is that workers, by virtue of being knowledge productive, soon outstrip their managers in terms of understanding of the subject, and fine-grained understanding of knowledge context and content.
In this regard Grant identifies a structural and hierarchical issue:
“When managers know only a fraction of what their subordinates know and tacit knowledge cannot be transferred upwards, then coordination by hierarchy is inefficient” (Grant 1996:118)
Clearly then we need a different kind of leadership model, one in which management is a facilitating and supportive force rather than a driving one, and strictly hierarchical power should be replaced with a more knowledge-ecology based model with collaboration rather than knowledge-hoarding at its basis.
Nonaka identifies the need and function of a “shared space for emerging relationships” in which “knowledge activists” share information and knowledge, and interact in a climate of trust and engagement. (Nonaka 1995:50).
This “shared space” is identified by Nonaka under the term “Ba”, and it is to be understood as both a physical space as well as a mental or virtual space, and which is providing the physical space and materials for knowledge production such as libraries, access to information sources and the like, and also the access needed to acquire and process knowledge. It additionally comprises the mental “space” of time and calm needed to generate ideas and process information, and also the virtual space of electronic or other methods of communication.
Part of Ba is also the workers themselves, and management has a role in acting as matchmaker to bring together people whose projects and interests have a logical affinity, and for whom there should be “mutual attractiveness” (Jansink 2005:4)
The final piece of the puzzle is to evolve and maintain an organizational culture where creation and retention of knowledge is seen as a primary business driver, and sharing of knowledge is seen by all as a core behavioural attribute of all staff and as a standard practice in the organization. In this culture we need to encourage values and institute rewards which drive the creation and sharing of intellectual capital. (Klein 1998:5)
Debowski notes six relevant strategic values in this regard (Debowski 2006:15)
- Service orientation
- Quality focus
We might well step back at this point and agree that culture was the “most important component” (Pemberton 1998:188)
“Culture, structure and infrastructure of an organization are essential elements that facilitate and nurture learning” (Pemberton 1998:184)
It is clear that simply replacing knowledge workers when there are staff losses is not a viable option, and that effort must be made to recruit, invest in, and retain skilled knowledge workers who will form a knowledge network that becomes an organizational asset, which in turn serves and supports key organizational objectives.
It was further seen that this is not a simple matter of adding budget, but requires sponsorship, attention, and planning to achieve knowledge productivity in a context of a learning organization.
Since what resides “behind the eyes and between the ears” of knowledge workers amounts to a key corporate asset and a business differentiator, it is vital to have management sponsorship at the highest levels and to ensure an organizational culture that nourishes and promotes collaborative behaviour.
This environment solves the problem of knowledge worker retention and becomes the essence of a KM policy.
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 Fraser in fact finds a negative correlation in some situations (Fraser 2000:49)
 There is considerable research into the neurological basis for “learning by doing” related to “embodiment”, and the function of mirror neurons. More on this can be found in the writings of Gazzaniga, Crick, Loftus, and Banaji amongst others in the field.
 Buchman makes the claim based on the experience of a turn-around process at Buchman Laboratories in which he used knowledge-management principles to convert the entire organization into putting every employee “at the front line”, and motivating staff to share knowledge.