Q and A’s   2 comments

ANSWERS to REAL QUESTIONS

These issues, below, are all genuine inquiries from industry groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and elsewhere on the subjects of KM, HR, IT, management development and business education. The substance to Arnold’s answers are all contained within his books.

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“Why is there no time for KM in times of change?” – Bill Kaplan, Knowledge Management Consultant, The George Washington University, Virginia, USA.

Arnold replies: It’s because Knowledge Management is a discipline barely two decades old and – like the time it normally takes new skills to grow out of its Cinderella phase – it’ll probably take another decade to become more professional.

Actually the requirement for good KM goes well beyond employers trying to make change. It’s really applicable to every modern employer – literally. Employees are replacing their employers on average every four to five years in the UK, more often in the US.

Such discontinuity makes it even more important for replacement employees to inherit their employers’ unique knowledge and experience. Otherwise corporate amnesia stalks the workplace, the ability to learn efficiently is reduced and organic progress goes south. Even deliberate change – even completely new practice – requires knowledge to be captured, shared and applied to make it relevant for new circumstances and new environments. That’s KM, Have a look at what Cinderella will look like in 10 years at https://biggernumbers.wordpress.com

We’re Working Harder Than Ever, So Why Is Productivity Plummeting? – Mike Filion, Denver, Colorado.

Arnold replies: John Mardle, an independent observer on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy committee Genesis Group, quotes suggestions that the wrong measures are being taken of the wrong areas. He mentions another school of thought that is that its down to technology and that apps and the internet are delivering productivity without us being able to measure it accurately.

I would venture yet another – the unacknowledged effect of the flexible labour market on decision-making. In the UK we’re changing employers on average eight times in our working lifetimes. In the US it’s greater.

Our high rate of staff churn means that companies – the very institutions that dictate the productivity measure – lose their own special knowledge and experience on an on-going basis. This loss of organisational memory (OM) – I call it corporate amnesia – leads to the inability to engage in the way MOST progress is achieved – organically, i.e. one experience on another. It’s given us the corporate equivalent of Alzheimers.

Imagine – everyone, including the top brass, constantly changing employers in short time frames, with every job always in flux, no curable continuity, little or no corporate inheritance, a loyalty deficit, a corporate culture that is constantly being diluted, a disorientated employee base that has to deal with an endlessly shifting market environment, equally moveable corporate circumstances and the widespread breakdown in the recognised way most progress is achieved ….

All this influences the quality of decision-making and experiential NON-learning is no friend of productivity.

It is no coincidence that there is a time connection with our declining productivity and the advent of the flexible labour market in the 1980s.

Follow this blog, which is exclusively devoted to this subject.

EU REFERENDUM: An update to my recent post ‘The most UNANSWERED & important economic question ….’

questions4Much is being made of the statistic that the UK has a £23 billion deficit with the EU. ‘Out’ says this will encourage other EU countries to grant Britain continued access to the European single market because the EU wouldn’t want to forego our business.

But the fact that we sell less to the EU than the EU sells to us should tell us something different. It’s that we’re not particularly competitive. That’s because we’re expensive. And the reason for that is because our productivity is so low. Which, without the EU’s tariff breaks, will make it very difficult to compete elsewhere.

As per my recent post, the UK’s low productivity is a subject that I’ve NOT heard discussed. No change there. It’s as if it’s an irrelevancy.

I suggested that if we stay in the European Union, we’ll automatically have easier access to the world’s largest economic trading block, an address that’s provided us with our current level of prosperity.

But at last count our individual output – i.e. how much we, as employees, each produce – slumped to a 25-year low at 20 percentage points (yes, 20% percentage point) below the average of other leading industrialised nations (source: Office for National Statistics), meaning that it costs us that much more than our main trading rivals to produce our goods and services. Low productivity = higher costs = lower competitiveness, however one tries to rationalise it!

I’ll present the issue in a slightly different way. Although everyone’s productivity is currently under stress, ours has been relatively low for decades and – precisely because of this – suggestive that it’ll be very difficult to improve.

There may well be non-preferential markets outside the EU for the asking but how realistic is it that we’ll be able to maintain our more expensive sales outside of our existing geographical shelter? The standard Government solution will be to weather a decline in the value of sterling – and this will probably happen – but this’ll just mean that imports will become more expensive, giving us another big headache with which to cope. While we DO have isolated pockets of good productivity – car production is one – the overall picture is dire. It’s no small issue, and is publicly acknowledged as such.

In my previous posting (below) I invited anyone ‘authoritative’ from both ‘IN’ and ‘OUT’ to reply to this issue. Nothing.

One guess which side I’ll be voting for, without, I’m afraid, much conviction …..      

This post is expanded on at https://biggernumbers.wordpress.com/growth-how/

EU referendum: Is this the most important unanswered economic question?

As the day for our IN/OUT referendum approaches, there is one subject that I’ve NOT heard discussed.

It’s to do with our productivity. If we stay in the European Union, we’ll automatically have easier access to the world’s largest economic trading block, an address that’s provided us with our current level of prosperity. If we leave the EU, how will we compete with our historic low levels of productivity?

At last count, individual output – i.e. how much we, as employees, each produce – slumped to a 25-year low at 20 percentage points below the average of other leading industrialised nations (source: Office for National Statistics), meaning that it costs us that much more than our main trading rivals to produce our goods and services. Low productivity = higher costs = lower competitiveness, however one tries to rationalise it!

I’ll put the same question in another way. Although everyone’s productivity is currently under stress, ours has been relatively low for decades and – precisely because of this – suggestive that it’ll be very difficult to improve.

There may well be non-preferential markets outside the EU for the asking but – very serious question – how realistic is it that we’ll be able to maintain our more expensive sales outside of our existing geographical shelter? The standard Government solution is to stage-manage a decline in the value of sterling but this’ll mean is that imports will become more expensive, giving us another big headache. Whilst we DO have isolated pockets of good productivity – car production is one – the overall picture is dire. It’s no small issue, and is publicly acknowledged as such.

If anyone ‘authoritative’ from both the ‘IN’ or ‘OUT’ sees this, a reply please …..    

Can HR contribute to knowledge management?” – Anna-Elina Tomperi, Helsinki, Finland.

Arnold replies: The short answer is yes, HR can contribute to KM. But the most powerful function of all is either widely overlooked or sadly under-utilised. It’s Experiential Learning (EL), important for one simple reason – it can efficiently address the employers’ loss of their unique knowledge that springs from the flexible labour market’s short tenure, a distinguishing workplace characteristic in which HR is intimately involved. It’s got another, equally important, application – as a way of adapting how decisions need to be made in the new workplace of high employee turnover.

To explain. HR is responsible for replacing exiting employees, who decamp at an average rate of around 20% a year in the UK (higher in the US), taking with them large amounts of employer-specific knowledge and experience, including their employers’ important tacit knowledge. The ensuing workplace disruption dramatically slows the classic way most progress is achieved –organically, the building of one experience on another. That’s irrespective of the quality of HR-effected replacements, who have to accommodate themselves to their new employer and, anyway, will themselves join the flexible labour market in due course.

Done well, EL holds the key to addressing both workplace disruption and its decision-making dysfunction. It is a process that involves knowledge capture of the outward-bound, knowledge inheritance of the inward-bound and the application of structured reflection on previous practice to make good and better decisions.

Whether EL fits into HR, KM, IT or even training is another story, probably dependent on the relative importance that corporate hosts put on the values of their departments. Suffice to say that business education and business itself has not yet adequately adjusted to the 30-year-old flexible labour market way of doing things. The standard teaching model focuses on a one-size-fits-all approach to decision making. Because of short jobs tenure, incoming employees are deprived of their employers’ prior evidence/knowledge base with which to make their decisions. As such, modern business tutelage needs to shift more towards an institution-specific competence based on their employers’ unique and actually-happened knowledge and experience. That’s EL.

See a more comprehensive description at https://biggernumbers.wordpress.com/inside-the-world-of/. Scroll down to the post entitled ONBOARDING HAS A TIME-PERFECT OPPORTUNITY TO DO MORE THAN INDUCTION: A PEEK INTO THE FUTURE.

“To learn strategy, know history” – Mark Rhodes, Consultant, Strategy & Organizational Design, Chapel Hill, Carolina, USA, and Tom Connor, Management Economist, Henley Business School, Reading, United Kingdom.

 Arnold replies: You’re both right, of course, but let me proffer an associated commentary with two related questions. If history is so important, why doesn’t the subject have a more important focus in business education. And then, given our very flexible labour market, why don’t companies give their own history a more important focus, which would give their rolling numbers of new employees the knowledge of their employers’ own experiences?

This is accompanied by another disregard.

To be truly useful history – both the long-term and short-term array – needs to be APPLIED because circumstances and environments always change. This is the discipline known as Experiential Learning (EL), typically left to un-formalised and untaught expectation. In the old days it was known as organic learning, the building of one experience on another – and the acknowledged way most progress is (and was) achieved.)

 “Many external influences are ‘new’ to most organisations so history rarely assists the problem-solving aspects of strategy.” – John Mardle, facilitator of strategic and operational efficiency in cash flow and working capital, CashPerform, Milton Keynes, UK.

Arnold replies: You’re right to point out that many organisations think history doesn’t help because of their perception that changed external circumstances and environments are “new”. I would argue that most external changes are predictably similar to previous experiences, whether at decision-makers’ new or old employers, or even other employers. Whichever, they’re related to the employers’ prior practice. Thus, the unawareness of prior experience – i.e. history – simply short-changes the evidential base with which businesses could make good and better decisions. The trick is to be able to ‘apply’ that evidence to an employers’ specific situation as apposed to making decisions in isolation. It’s not exactly rocket science but something that business education and business strangely neglect …..  

“We need to move to a place where growth is not a factor. Growth is not sustainable and if there is growth at this time its difficult for that growth not to be at the expense of something valuable.” – Margot Donkersloot, Co-ordinator, Tinghuset at VillaWatt, Sealand Region, Denmark.

Arnold replies: I don’t believe that it’s possible, in our current economic system, to work with a no-growth environment. How do we employ the unemployed? In a low-productivity, short-day and high-wage setting, I suspect that even in your preferred backdrop, productivity would be important, doubtless even more important. However much I see your point, mine is quite separate. 

It addresses the current situation, where growth is necessity to provide the investment to give the employment to maintain our standard of living. Without it, I really wonder what would happen …..

“To take KM to next level, what are the things CKO need to master? What new roles does the CKO of the 21st century need to take on?” – Mahesh Gangayi, Senior Manager, Mindtree, Bengaluru, India.

Arnold replies: Given the continuing panorama of short-tenure employment, organizations will have to change their approach to how they provide their rolling employees – and especially management – with the necessary institution-specific knowledge with which to make their decisions. 

At present, employees typically/hopefully get access to the paperwork of previous incumbents that provides only token explicit data/information, with much of the more valuable tacit component of their tenure disappearing through the front door. As such, employees characteristically work mainly with their experience of other employers tempered with their commonplace short, selective and defensive memories. All this still has to be accommodated to their new employer, so, to enable better decision-making, employers need to couple the flexible labor market’s discontinuity with a new emphasis. Namely that they provide the evidence of their own experiences – whether successful or unsuccessful – and to ensure that their new employees have the ability to apply those experiences with their own. It’s called experiential learning (EL), which should be a part of KM.

 Otherwise the prospect arises of repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons. Very expensive!!!

“How can an organization create and sustain a continuous improvement culture?” – James Brewton, Founder and President, Small Ideas LLC, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Arnold replies: There is one approach that businesses neglect to address. If you want to “create and sustain a continuous improvement culture” first solve the problem of your discontinuous workforce arising from the flexible labour market.  

This fundamental change in the modern workplace – endemic short tenure (in the UK the average is just four/five years, the US lower) and the recurrent loss of unique company-specific knowledge and experience leading to widespread corporate amnesia – has largely removed the institutional ability to evolve organically, i.e. from the building of one experience on another. Organic learning is the way that most progress occurs, so whatever defensive measures are employed – and some are mentioned above – any benefit is routinely lost. Even innovative learning, the other way progress is achieved, derives from prior experience and needs to be inherited by succeeding generations if it is not to be lost ……

What’s needed is a formal corporate policy to more efficiently share acquired knowledge and experience before it walks out of the front door, a discipline that falls neatly into the unexploited compass of Knowledge Management (KM). Thereafter replacement employees have to know how best to apply that invaluable and unique knowledge. This is the discipline called Experiential Learning (EL), which is also a neglected part of business education.

If you don’t address workplace discontinuity, there is no continuous improvement!

“Should knowledge managers be concerned with managing tacit knowledge?” – Dr Lesley Crane, consultant practitioner and author, Taunton, UK.

Arnold replies: Tacit knowledge is the way explicit knowledge can be made to work most efficiently. It’s the ‘how’ of getting from A to B without having to go via Z. Without it, the explicit knowledge that most businesses routinely collect is just data and information. The tacit is unique to every individual organisation. To ignore it is to disallow individuality, the institutions’ USP (unique selling point) and its competitiveness. Yet most managers can’t identify it, let alone know how to use it. The skill is called Experiential Learning, a discipline that is yet to be formally adopted by business education, which prefers to teach decision-making as a generic one-size-fits-all way of making determinations. In today’s flexible labour market, the ‘tacit’ is more important than ever, with everyone’s unique knowledge and experience dispersing through short tenure.

With regard to tacit knowledge, unfortunately, that which cannot be measured is generally ignored in both public agencies and private organizations. – Albert Simard, President, Integrated Knowledge Services, Osgoode, Ontario, Canada.

Arnold replies: You’re right, unfortunately dead right. I see shades of the Emperor’s new clothes in your comment. There are a lot of detractors out there who don’t – or can’t – define tacit or see the benefit of it.

The fact that something is not, or can’t be, measured doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That said, I can quote some authoritative academics who have estimated that up to 90% of an employers’ knowledge and experience – mostly this ‘tacit element we’re speaking of – is embedded and synthesized in employees’ heads. True, it’s not a definitive number, but does this imprecision disqualify the surveillance?

Apparently it does, so when their employees’ leave – and this is happening hand over fist in our very flexible labour market – this valuable item of intellectual capital is just written off.

The better question is why have so few business people or academics not seen how beneficial it might be to capture, share and then purposely learn from this absenting ‘lubricant’ to better decision-making? They’ll no doubt say it’s because they can’t precisely measure it but dare I suggest that they’ve lost the ability to detect value, even imprecisely ….

“A good strategy makes for a good story. My message for leaders: if you get your story right, it can be a very powerful management tool indeed.” – Freek Vermeulen, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School, UK.

Arnold replies: You’re right. Storytelling is a useful management tool to illustrate and influence, and his message, which takes his own advice by recalling his own stories, is spot on.

To be a storyteller in whichever patch you’re in, you obviously have to know how best to relate them. It’s a skill in its own right but you also have to be able to accurately recall relevant events, happenings, incidences, occasions, however you like to describe them. In my patch of business – knowledge management and experiential learning – I pigeonhole it as organisational memory (OM), otherwise known as ‘history’ in its various forms – business history, corporate history, economic history, management history, subjects that we, in business, don’t do well at all. Many other professions include a generic component of their history in their education (art, architecture, music, soldiering, politics, etc.), but in business? Little or nothing. Alongside narrow, simplified and disaggregated case studies, economic history, the only form of more comprehensive history in use, is in dramatic decline.

Without history, the evidence with which to tell good stories is lessened. The reduced knowledge base also has a deleterious effect on good decision-making, strategy included.

“Unlearning must be an intentional and deliberate process. Does your KM strategy include a specific, formalized approach for unlearning skills and practices?” – Johel Brown Grant, Knowledge Management Analyst, USPS OIG, Washington DC, USA.

Arnold replies: Whenever the word ‘unlearning’ comes up, I am challenged to respond. Unlearning is a euphemism for experiential NON-learning, a process that stops taking prior practice to its organic conclusion.

Unlearning it is a response to perceived failure where the action is given a negative – not-to-be-used-ever-again – label. Most failure – actually I would argue that ALL failure, like success – can be improved upon. But for this to happen, it must be acknowledged. If it is ‘unlearned’, there is no conceded evidential base from which to progress. Ipso facto there is the predisposition to repeat the mistake, reinvent the wheel and not learn the lesson.

All decisions happen for a reason. It is the reason(s) that should be examined for any learning to take place. As such, actions shouldn’t be ‘unlearned’. It is just a defensive reaction to poor decision making – a symptom of the modern workplace and a very fashionable misnomer, which serves to devalue proper experiential learning, among many of us KM-ers.

“In my experience selling KM as KM is a futile exercise.” – Chandrasekhar Padmasola, Director, Synergy Computer Solutions, Hyderabad, India.

Arnold replies: It’s complicated to explain but my experience for commerce and industry’s resistance may be helpful.

Modern decision-makers don’t understand the difference between explicit knowledge (which their organisations DO make efforts to preserve) and tacit knowledge (which they don’t). As a general rule, they believe KM is just document management, which is partly us KM-er’s fault. Few of us take the discipline to its optimal level as the main medium for experiential learning. As such we should be selling KM as experiential learning, the evidence being the pandemic of repeated mistakes, reinvented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter the workplace. 

This presents another problem because of our business education system, which teaches decision-making largely as a one-size-fits all discipline. Most of commerce and industry see decision-making in a similar way, believing that making good determinations is a largely generic discipline that can be applied across the board. In truth, no thanks to the modern flexible labour market where job tenure is short, good decision-making is now more institute-specific, dependent on one’s employers’ specific sector, its own experience and own circumstances where tacit knowledge is critical to the primary way most progress occurs – organically, i.e. the building of one experience on another. That’s not to say that outside experience is not useful but even outside experience has to be adapted to individual employers.

Hence the importance of experiential learning within institutions. Business education neglects this subject as do employers in their in-house training.

Some of the other explanations for resistance include the widespread reluctance of decision-makers to share knowledge, with individuals clinging on to the proprietary attitude that says “it’s my knowledge and mine alone”. This is despite the reality that their acquired knowledge is a product paid for by their employer and created within their walls. Elsewhere, decision-makers are themselves actively part of the flexible labour market with an attitude that says “we don’t have to care for very long.

“This (The REAL reason why the UK’s doctors’ surgeries and hospitals are FULL) seems a bit off topic to me. You might be right in your assertions about the food, medicine and health care industries, but I’m not convinced that the key issue is a failure of experiential learning.” – Richard Naylor, owner, Enrich, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Arnold replies: I argue that it’s experiential learning on two fronts – that the problem has been evident for decades and little or nothing has been done about it and secondly, that because of the domino effects between several independent-managed industry groups, little or nothing has been learned from each other. Much like the banking crisis, where banking learned little or nothing from the past and as did (or didn’t) the many associated industry groups.

I would suggest that their magnitudes might camouflage the cause-and-effect but there’s no doubt about the experiential NON-learning involved in the domino associations.

For the discipline of EL itself, it also demonstrates the widespread oversight of another key area of importance in its repertoire – business history and corporate history. For the former, it doesn’t feature in business education, as doesn’t corporate history. I reason that they’re essential sources of evidence for EL. They, in essence, provide experience cheaply, not to repeat the past but to allow decision-makers to apply the past ….

“I hired a fresh graduate with good grades and she turned out to be a high performer compared to experienced staff on the same level. A smart graduate is a fast learner.” – Norhayati Mohn Nordin Yusuf, Bard Sdn., Bhd., Penang, Malaysia.

 Arnold replies: It can be rightly pointed out that graduates may be quicker learners than non-graduates or even more experienced individuals. But without being aware of prior practice and/or acquired knowledge, their ‘learning’ is restricted to the contemporary, which excludes an important swathe of potential erudition that would derive from connectivity and give a frame of reference. Without a frame of reference, learning is just reflex.  

“Is there any evidence that companies with very low churn become more homogenous, with limited access to new knowledge and are less innovative?” – Peter Spence, Consultant – National Principal Advisor, After Hours Care, Australian Medicare Local Alliance, Coffs Harbour, Australia.

Arnold replies: In my experience, companies and other organizations concentrate on trying to limit their staff turnover rather than on trying to capture their exiting knowledge. When they do start to “feel” the effects of knowledge loss, some do overlap – they allow the incoming individual to shadow their outgoing colleague for one to three months. Most consider this very expensive and is highly dependent on the exiting individual’s cooperation and his/her inherent short, selective and defensive memory.

There is an interesting study into staff poaching, which represents a large proportion of executive and vocational churn in the labor market. When it comes to knowledge transferability between jobs/employers, the Harvard researchers found that the performance of high flyers fell sharply and stayed well below old achievement levels thereafter. A total of 46% performed poorly in the year after they left one company for another. After they switched loyalties, their performance plummeted by an average of about 20% and did not climb back to the old levels even after five years.

One explanation is that the new company doesn’t have the same support services but on its own, it suggests that the traditional decision making process is also imperfect. I go with the corporate amnesia explanation and/or decision making without experiential learning proper.    

And yes, there must be plenty of examples of low churn employers around suffering from low innovation and the absence of “new” knowledge but my explanation for this is that resident employees – indeed us all – are not very good experiential learners. It’s a subject that is not widely taught in business education, which prefers a one-size-fits-all approach to decision making.

I agree with your concept and am wondering if you have a proposed next step? How is your vision different from organizing HBS case studies into some coherent topic or time flow?” – Dr. Ross Wirth, Professor & Chief Futurist, Future College, Columbus, Ohio, USA.

Arnold replies: You’ve asked a tough question. I think it needs a higher profile individual or institution than me or mine to redirect a “super tanker” establishment such as education to change its ways. Hence my signal to Bill Gates. I’ve said in a previous posting that while Rome burns, I get the apprehensive feeling that business education and business itself are both waiting for each other to fire the gun. To mix a metaphor, it needs someone special to lead the horse(s) to water …..

Your other point about case studies is easier to answer. They are probably the nearest it gets to applying organizational memory in any format to address poor decision making. The other is corporate history when it is not done as hagiography.

That said there is a small but influential constituency that is highly critical of the case study, among them Mintzberg and Lampel, Bailey and Ford, and Leavitt. Among their reproaches are that they may be useful for the study of management, but not for the teaching of management, which is best done through actual experiences. Leavitt, for example, is on record as saying that “business schools have been designed without practice fields.” My own observation is that institute-specific experience is even better …..

When case studies ARE used, students with little or no management experience are typically presented with 20 pages on a company they do not know and told to pronounce on its strategy the next day. They are usually no more than summarised snapshots to explain the workings of some functional management discipline, an approach that inescapably disaggregates their inter-relationship with other management factors and influences. The wider contextual picture illustrating the more complex and intimate nature of running a real business and making real decisions is studiously avoided. In many countries the examples used are also more often in other geographical areas, giving any experiential learning a generalized application. In essence, unfamiliar exemplars are less efficient than home-grown models or actual employers.

I don’t want to write them off entirely but, as a general rule, they also don’t adequately address the separate dysfunctional consequences of jobs churn or its discontinuous impact on decision making.

“What would your suggestion be where there is no culture of KM, such as in the public service where people use their knowledge to portray themselves as better or superior than others?” – Motseothata Tau, Managing Director, African Black Eagle Development Consulting (Pty) Ltd., Pretoria, South Africa.

Arnold replies: I think I would first try and assess how defensive is the particularly body. Given the tone of your question, I’m guessing they’d be resistant. In that case, it would be best to see how many allies you could get privately on your side, preferably the higher ranking the better. Then, ask their advice about the best strategy alongside some lobbying. Every organization is different. It might then be just a formal proposal to HR or probably someone higher, depending on the organization’s structure. I would also do some basic research around the organization to put together a list of repeated mistakes and other unlearned lessons to use as ammunition when you’re eventually called in to give the proposal more meat. 

Keep in mind that it’s always more successful if the request to do something is top-down. Whatever, it’s a tough one overall, and especially in an environment where there are many alpha managers around.

Coincidentally I was in South Africa several years ago on assignment and tried to interest the Government in KM and particularly in knowledge sharing, knowledge capture and experiential learning. I regret to report I was totally unsuccessful. This was during a high job turnover period that, I believe, continues unabated. Good luck.

“Does workforce turnover leas to amnesia or is it that poor cultures and absent leadership drives up workforce turnover? If organizations do not maintain positive cultures and take care of their personnel, no KM solution in the world will prevent turnover. The best the KM solution can do is capture performance data.” – Jeff Marshall, Vice President, CGI Federal, Williamsburg, USA.

Arnold replies: Jeff, you’re right that poor culture and absent leadership often leads to staff turnover but good KM can still be useful if departees are prepared to leave their ‘performance’ footprints behind them. It sometimes IS the reason to oblige, and their voice can be extremely useful for management change. Whatever the numbers, there is usually a good percentage of departees who leave for different reasons and who would likely cooperate. For them , the motivation would be to mitigate corporate amnesia. There is also the resident employees whose footprints would, if capture was done regularly or after important events, be useful for other remaining employees across the organization.

“An employee who learns a skill in one job/industry can invariably use some of those skills in another.” – Thomas Malcolm Pugh, Director, TMalcolmPugh@ssociates, Cardiff, UK. 

Arnold replies: Skills are important, basic to all workplace practice, but there is another component of workplace practice that is important, arguably more important. It is the ability to accommodate individual organisational differences in the way things are done. Every institution is different. They have singular cultures, all created by their history, their employees, their field of endeavour, their customers, their events, their circumstances, etc. etc. It’s buried in the acronym USP (unique selling point).

I think what you’re referring to is explicit knowledge, the technical side of getting things done. What I’m especially referring to is tacit or cognitive knowledge, so-called coping skills or ‘operacy’ and what I describe as the ‘how’ of know-how, which is very different. Much of it is implicit, ambiguous, and certainly esoteric, and acquired largely by experience that is functional and, in its most instructive forms, context-, co-worker- and institution-specific.

The point I am making is that our flexible labor market has largely ended workplace continuity, hosted the phenomenon of corporate amnesia and removed the acknowledged way that most progress happens – organically, through the building of one experience on another. Without an intimate awareness of one’s new employer’s way of doing things – i.e. its special knowledge and actual experience – there’s therefore little or no ability to learn from their specific experience, only others’ non-specific experience, thereby removing from transiting employees a valuable learning opportunity. As such, I was pointing out that employers needed to have better KM processes in place and employees needed to know how best to learn from experience ….. which would be the role of teachers/academics.

Where the individual organizational evidence IS available (rare in the UK), decision-makers are generally expected to depend on informal methods of arriving at conclusions, and often just instinct. Experiential learning is a defined and formalized discipline that is widely overlooked by teachers/academics (see the work of Professor David Kolb and others). The one-size-fits-all business instruction is thus lacking.

As stated, skills are basic and essential. The trick is to make them work effectively in the different environments employees now find themselves every five years on average. These include all ranks in the corporate hierarchy. And this depends on knowing better how different institutions work.  

From the academic (and practitioners’) viewpoint, it is instructive to note the geo-cultural differences to understanding knowledge. In the West we’ve generally thought that it is mainly technologically-orientated encompassing rules, processes and professional/vocational information, and that it comes through deductive thinking. In the East it is derived inductively through actual experience. It is more practical, evolutionary and tacit. Tacit’s importance is barely acknowledged in the West; few will even know how to define it, let alone show any concern about its loss. I think the application of one without the other just short changes employees and the organizations they work for.  

“You have achieved significant success in the KM area…my congrats. We seem to have a pool of KM thought in common. Let me know if there is anything in my background, education, or experience that could support your mission.” – Michael Sutton, Associate Professor in Higher Education, [Westminster College (Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business], Salt Lake City, USA.

Arnold replies: I wanted to link up with you because of your stated interest in curriculum development.

You’ve correctly spotted my own interest in KM and experiential learning, which came out of my original activity as a publisher of corporate and business history. Many of my titles were actual corporate histories, which provided the medium for preserving the long-term memory of individual institutions. In terms of readership, the audience for these titles were obviously the institutions themselves, in particular employees as an induction tool, but also retirees, shareholders, libraries, social and business historians and a few other sectors.

For years I have been trying to interest business schools to use corporate history as a learning tool – without success. I would argue that if a business school was educating someone who showed an interest in, for example, the textile industry, then their reading list should include several examples of the textile companies. I’ve been particularly underwhelmed by the typical response – “no, we know better”, especially as generic history is not an uncommon placement in the education of many other professions such as art, architecture, science, medicine, the military, etc. There, it’s recognised as a discrete field of learning but not in business education (except at Harvard, where, in its wider format, business history is a compulsory component for all first-year students).

Hagiography aside, I have argued that generations are better able to understand the world of business if they are given access to the process, innovation and leadership that have made businesses possible. In short, history can provide experience effectively – and, as it happens, cheaply.

Equally, with the better use of medium- and short-term ‘history’ – what I’ve alternatively styled as ‘organizational memory’ (OM) because of history’s unfashionable associations with dates/Kings & Queens/etc – for contemporary decision-making.

“The current dynamism in the modern world is no longer going to allow cost-cutting denominator management and employee non-sharing of knowledge to survive. What do you think?” – James Harrison, Director, Skills4Real, Auckland, New Zealand. 

Arnold replies: I am with you about the societal emphasis on financial capital, which I think goes some way to explaining our obsession with short-termism. On this basis, I think our long-term prospects are inhibited by more strategic operators.

Your other point about individuals having proprietorial attitudes to “their” knowledge is also correct. In this case, employers seem to have disenfranchised themselves by ignoring the fact that they’ve got equivalent ownership rights. They’ve not only paid for the acquired knowledge through salaries/wages but also provided the circumstances and ancillary support.

As you correctly indicate, these are old paradigms that are – I think – subtly sustained by both labour and management to the disadvantage of both. And I would agree with you that these attitudes throw away the real value in the organisation but I’m pretty sure that your evolutionary solution – “the age of smart and high trust networks” – will not substitute. If your description of these networks are that they will be sharing their values, financial and intellectual resources, history tells us that this is a utopian political vision that has been tried, tested and found wanting. It may be a marginal development, but will, I think, not dominate. We’re too competitive by nature and, ironically, not competitive enough in practice.

I would strongly suggest that in our society, the other evolutionary pathway, at least in our patch – rational argument that corporate knowledge is not exclusively owned by the one party that doesn’t fund it and that short-termism needs to be replaced by more tactical thinking – is the more preferable and likely outcome. I happen to think that better KM and EL will do the trick but, as we know, your observation of the seemingly blind behaviour of the modern business world makes such change difficult and slow.

“The best of British? It takes a foreigner to recognise it. An explanation? I don’t have one”: – Hamish McRae, columnist, The Independent newspaper.

Arnold replies: In your interesting article (“The best of British? It takes a foreigner to recognise it”), The Independent, May 6, 2014) you raise – but say you can’t answer – the question why.

‘Foreigners’ seeing the commercial potential of many British top brands is not new. Both the acquisition and management of many major British companies has been going on for years.By 2002, for example, just four British or Anglo-Dutch-owned businesses appeared in Fortune’s list of top 100 companies. By 2004, 17 of the 50 largest British firms were being run by foreigners, compared with five in Germany and the US and three in France. Few, if any, of the large financial service companies in the City of London – the powerhouse of the British economy – are British owned. By 2003, the top eight earners among legal firms based in the UK were US-owned. You correctly remind us of the foreign ownership and management of our car production, which represents a significant proportion of UK manufacturing. The management of much of British sport is also not exempt from non-UK leadership and ownership. The list is endless.

The common theme is that, as experience-rich operators, we’ve widely surrendered to better management, among them many experience-poor operators. And the explanation for this is that our business education is not all its cracked up to be, illustrated by a former Director General of the BBC (Greg Dyke). When he wanted to top up his managerial skills, the business school in which he chose to do it was Harvard.

In this respect, my associated observation is that we are particularly poor experiential learners – i.e. we don’t apply our experience-rich practice at all well. In the first place we neglect our experience, demonstrated by the disregard for economic history (it is being slowly dropped out of the curriculum), business history (Harvard Business School teaches such a course to all first year students, we don’t) and corporate history (almost exclusively seen as a celebratory medium for an important anniversary, so employers only onpass their experience every 50 or 100 years). Alongside this, the highly flexible labour market sees organization-specific knowledge and experience substituted for others’ knowledge and experience, thus upsetting the acknowledged principle that MOST progress is achieved organically – i.e. from the building of one experience on another. Then we don’t teach the formal discipline of experiential learning. All this imposes widespread discontinuity, the absence of one’s own institutional memory (what I call corporate amnesia) and the pandemic of repeated mistakes, reinvented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter commerce and industry.

This, and other related educational oversights and dysfunction, has made us particularly vulnerable to better management available elsewhere. It is observable that non-British managers manage much better previously British-owned and British-managed companies, car companies being the obvious example.” 

Getting older workers, retiring workers, contractors and others motivated to transfer knowledge isn’t easy. How did you get it done? – Howard Cohen, Booz Allen Hamilton, Virginia, USA.

Arnold replies: “You’ve put your finger on, perhaps, the most proprietorial of employee attitudes towards knowledge and experience.

No thanks to a millennium of prior practice, the conventional perception is that it belongs to the individual. It is the core of their ‘power’, the underlying source of their negotiating tactics and the basis of their status. It provides an important definition of their ability, gives value to their experience and defines the way business is run. As such, the concept of ‘sharing’ – the principle behind Knowledge Management (KM), experiential learning (EL) and good decision making – can (and does in many cases) fall at this barbed wire fence.

Until recently, this mind-set was not the problem it is now, mainly because the flexible labor market was never as flexible. Today, there is so much lateral movement across the jobs market – even at the top end of the corporate tree – that workplace discontinuity is dominant. And given that most progress is achieved organically – i.e. from the building of one experience on another – there is very little experiential learning that can take place and which is relevant to an employers’ own unique circumstances. Even the experiential learning from OTHER employers still has to be wedded to one’s new paymaster, providing for a evidential shortfall that would otherwise help to associate the discontinuity.  

As such, commerce and industry have been left struggling with the conception of knowledge ownership being exclusive to individuals, the effect of which in today’s walkabout workplace shouldn’t under-estimated. It is a clear impediment to good decision-making. In truth, it is eminently arguable that institution-specific knowledge and experience is a JOINTLY-owned intellectual asset, not only because the employer PAYS for it but that its acquisition is gained within the employers’ own unique environment.

Because of the historical issue of exclusive ownership, getting this ‘no brainer’ argument over to individuals is difficult but probably best done at the beginning of employers’ tenure and, if necessary, cemented within the contract of employment that individuals are required to be debriefed either at regular intervals or after important events. My own experience is that, if sensitively and firmly handled, this is not a problem with the majority of employees. With an awareness of all the issues involved, most are flattered to be asked to contribute.

Thereafter, so-called debriefings – or whatever other ways are used to capture this migrant commodity – have also to be handled sensitively and, above all, professionally, with a view to capturing the important tacit knowledge of the decision-makers’ experience.

I don’t wish to under-estimate the difficulty of changing culture but for the employer, the ability to share knowledge across the transiting generations of employees is critical to productivity. The flexible labor market has changed everything, making sharing a critical component of management strategy to avoid the necessity that one’s own-knowledge and experience has to be constantly reinvented and/or relearned.

Can high turnover be good? – Michael Fabris, Vice Director, Finance, Foundation for Democratic Advancement, Calgary, Canada.

Arnold replies: ONLY when the replacement is not too disruptive.

 To ensure this:

+ replacement employees should be as good or better qualified then their predecessors, and

 + key departees have left behind a record of their experience, including their acquired knowledge and particularly their tacit knowledge.

Without the former, progress is slower than it might otherwise be, mainly because of the adaptation time – what we’ve called induction – to the new environment and new circumstances. This – what we call productivity – can often take up to 12 months during an average five-year tenure in today’s flexible labor market. Inside the average tenure, the last 12 months of employment is often also less than productive.

Without the latter, the organization becomes subject to so-called corporate amnesia, with individuals being unaware of institution-specific knowledge and experience. This gives rise to repeated mistakes, the inability to improve on successes, re-invented wheels and the loss of other important lessons. Productivity is further affected.

Do universities need to re-think their business model? – John Arboleda, NOYO Global Engagement & Strategy, Barcelona, Spain. 

Arnold replies: Yes, there’s at least one aspect of business education that has a hole in it the size of a very deep crater. In truth it’s a collaborative neglect with industry and commerce that has been in train for more than 30 years.

My observation is made against the recognised principle that most progress is achieved incrementally – the building of one experience on another. Even innovative learning – the type of learning that leapfrogs convention – is more often dependent on sequential erudition, both for its originality and continuity.

The omission is the absent response to the iceberg-like effect of the flexible labor market, whose first manifestation surfaced in the early 1980s. Since then employees have seen the number of their paymasters increase to around eight in their working life times in many developed countries, more so in the US. This was correctly perceived to be beneficial for both employer and employee, the former being able to respond more quickly to changing environments, the latter able to acquire more varied experience. But what employers, employees and business education have spectacularly missed is the important role institution-specific experience plays in the cut and thrust of organizational survival.

Their unique, hard-won and expensively paid-for knowledge, including a lot of their explicit knowledge but – more importantly – their more important tacit knowledge – continuously walks out of the front door. Today, corporate amnesia is widespread, leading to the pandemic of repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons that is knocking the stuffing out of productivity – and progress.

In today’s new-style workplace, few employers manage their knowledge loss, believing that their replacement employees and whatever is in their massive data banks will compensate. And business education neglects to teach the formal discipline of experiential learning, confining their efforts to the outdated one-size-fits-all methodologies which, in our pot-boiling workplace, provides only a small proportion of the evidential base with which businesses can learn to make good and better decisions.

The collaborative neglect flags up the reality around which body – the customer or the provider – should initiate the problem and the solution. In my eyes it should be employer but it is business education that should provide the answer. It feels like the classic tragicomedy Waiting for Godot! Ironically, the solutions are already ready to go.

Under the two-way formulary, commerce and industry need to know how to efficiently share and specifically capture their unique knowledge and experience across their transiting generations. Then those generations need to know – in experiential learning specialists Professors Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Tekeuchi’s words – how to transform old knowledge into new knowledge. This is business academia’s role. Actually Professor David Kolb’s reflective methodology how to do experiential learning has been around since the 1980s but even though it is renowned in educational and practitioner circles, it’s practical application is still rare.

I conclude that between them, industry, commerce and business education are not doing their job.

Does anyone out there feel that they are doing something particularly innovative in terms of experiential Learning? Bob Larcher, leadership development practitioner, Toulouse, France.

Arnold replies: Yes, the work we’ve done is, I believe, particularly innovative.

Currently the EL model is based on the evidential base of individuals’ memory and the immediate or recent experience of individuals as it affects their employer. With regard to the former, this is constrained by endemic short, selective and defensive memory. For the latter, the true value of doing any EL on immediate or recent experiences is dependent on the tenures of individuals and groups lasting longer than the recurrence of the next similar or associated event. Typically the flexible labor market intervenes (the average job duration in many developed economies being less than five years, even less in the US), the individuals leave and the group is broken up, thus reducing the effective value of any acquired ‘EL’ to a maximum of, perhaps, one generation, after which the unique organization-specific lessons are lost.

What we’ve done is design Knowledge Management and particularly EL around several broad focuses that first captures long-term memory, and medium and short-term memory. Long-term memory (useful for strategy) is captured through the traditional corporate history updated every five years but produced as a non-hagiographic induction/management learning tool rather than a celebratory medium after 50 or 100 years. This can ordinarily be a private document or, depending on its outcome (and the attitude of the latest generation of managers), as a public document for wider circulations to, for examples, favoured business schools.

To address the exiting knowledge/experience of departing employees, we’ve pioneered the development of Oral Debriefing for capturing medium and short-term memory. These are typically conducted during or after major corporate events, and/or on an annual basis (useful for operational practices). It concentrates on capturing the employers’ unique tacit knowledge.

This short, medium and long-term evidence is then made digitally available for selected successive generations of personnel to complement individuals’ own knowledge and experience gained through other employers. Depending on perceived importance, the Oral Debriefings can be extended down the food chain of seniority.

Using this improved evidence base, the third focus is to teach employees HOW to experientially learn, something that traditional business education neglects. We prefer using David’s Kolb’s methodology attached to a Lessons Learned approach that allows the ‘lessons’ to be passed down the generations for application to new environments and circumstances.

Importantly we’ve introduced a new and, arguably, more important component to the evidential base – the employers’ prior knowledge and experience. It directly addresses the stop-start character of short jobs tenure and salvages the lost acknowledgement that MOST progress is achieved organically – i.e. the building of one experience on another.

“What would Einstein say today about KM” – James Peter Gillum, Sr. Data Integration Architect/DBA SQL Server, Florida Department of Education, Tallahassee, USA.

Arnold replies: An interesting question for us KM-ers. But how relevant is a 58-years dead genius’s comments on a 20-year-old concept? Well, very, if he eulogized the author of the very subject that gives KM is ultimate justification.

He described the work of one of KM’s pioneers that “only a genius could have thought of it.”

The subject to which he was unwittingly referring is experiential learning (EL), the discipline that enables organizations, and the people who are employed by them, to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ without going via ‘Z’. Its host is KM, which is itself part of Information Technology (IT), the digital home of data, information and, supposedly, ‘knowledge’. Einstein’s acclamation was for his contemporary, Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist whose work into cognitive development, and specifically into how knowledge grows, foreshadowed the modern discipline of EL.

Simultaneously Piaget was working with Frenchman Alfred Binet, the creator of the first intelligence test, to take the early 20th Century’s thinking about behaviorialism – known then as the Pavlovian view of respondent conditioning (reference Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs where bell ringing was an preface to food) – to the next level.

Coincidentally Einstein demonstrated the exact approach behind Piaget and Binet’s labors – also, incidentally, most advances – that progress, including inventive progress, is mostly organic. As a physicist, Einstein re-fashioned Newtonian mechanics to come up with his special theory of relativity that modeled the structure of the universe. Alongside this, he revised the conventional wisdom of statistical mechanics and quantum theory to explain particle theory and the motion of molecules.

What they were all doing was experiential learning (EL), the building of one intellectual brick on another. The connection to KM is clear. KM is the precise vehicle through which the knowledge of organisation-specific prior practice can, if used correctly, be efficiently applied to changing circumstances, especially in an environment where the flexible labor market disrupts all continuity and which has given us institutionalised corporate amnesia.

I suspect that Einstein’s ‘today’ comment on the now-acknowledged subject would be incredulity that both the principle of EL and its KM host has taken so long to evolve in educational processes and commerce and industry. Both EL and KM are still unrefined and largely unacknowledged in anything other than IT’s mass recording of data, information and explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, a missing component in the learning mix of inspiring evolution, is conspicuously overlooked, as is the taught skill of how best to apply tried-and-tested old knowledge into new knowledge. It’s the absent lubricant for much better decision making.

“… in a headlong rush to contract out technical activities, such as science, public sector organizations are left with contract administrators who don’t understand the work that they are managing. How many times has this resulted in high-priced solutions that didn’t solve the problem? Sigh! – Albert Simard, Knowledge Manager, Defence Research & Development Canada, Ontario, Canada.

Arnold replies: Your ‘sigh’ is so sad. I have a similar bundle of stories that demonstrate how resistant is the civil service, even the private sector, to acknowledging and addressing corporate amnesia.

I like to describe the situation as akin to kicking a dinosaur’s tail, the dinosaur being the rigidly huge education system that we’ve created to service a commerce/industry sector desperately trying to live with the conveyer-belt issues surrounding flexible working. Like the dinosaur it takes a goodly time to feel anything. And when this eventually happens, the asteroid has already struck.

To use some other metaphors, the transfusion of new blood to the workforce is beneficial …. but only if the institution’s DNA – its unique knowledge and experience – is part of the blood mix. Constant stop-start does nothing for petrol consumption. And the dinosaur’s momentum might propel it forward but the collateral damage to its environment – i.e. productivity – is huge.

Forgive the cynicism, but there’s definitely something wrong with our system when we become addicted to the ‘We must learn the lessons’ of experiential NON-learning. To the employer who can’t do experiential learning, I like to quote the dialogue in one of English novelist J. L. Carr’s texts, “You have not had thirty years’ experience. You have had one year’s experience 30 times.”

There are some voices suggesting mandatory sharing intellectual assets activities (like stipulating it in employment contracts), but I personally believe this won’t exactly trigger the mindset we’d like employees to have for collaborative actions. If it will have a negative pressure effect, employees engagement will be affected, thus becoming counter productive. The way I see it, for sharing to be successful (read natural), it has to be driven by voluntary beliefs. – Viviana Cherbel, Executive Manager, Activ Asigurari, Romania.

Arnold replies: I can only transmit our experience, which – admittedly – was obtained without any contractual obligation via my suggested contracts of employment. In all cases (except with dismissals and most redundancies, where we determined it was useless to ask) all subjects agreed without reservation, with most being flattered to have been asked. In all cases, the argument was such that the institution thought the knowledge and experience important enough to preserve for future use.

The approach is typically made at several key-point occasions, for example after a critical incident such as a product recall, an important event such as a new product launch or the opening of a new store, et al., or when a key individual is leaving. With really senior individuals, oral debriefings are conducted at regular intervals, usually around Xmas time.

The suggestion to include such commitment to capture in a formalized way via contracts of employment is made as a culture-change measure if employees are deemed to be resistant. I would suggest that the voluntary approach is certainly preferable but formalizing it would provide a way to overcome the conventional wisdom of knowledge being the sole preserve of the employee. Perhaps a verbal mention at interview time would be sufficient but the situation remains that knowledge ownership is NOT exclusively owned for the reasons I – and you – have enunciated.

If knowledge and experience is not deemed to be jointly owned, then the whole premise of KM, sharing and experiential learning is dead meat. When the flexible labor market wasn’t around, there was no issue (well, no big issue) with knowledge loss, etc., but with modern staff churn the problem of corporate amnesia and experiential NON-learning is writ very large indeed.

Bill Kaplan, KM Advisor to Government and Industry, Washington DC, USA & Mike McHugh, Management Consultant, Philadelphia, USA.

Arnold replies: You support the premise that knowledge sharing is desirable but query whether it’s possible to establish clear ownership.

However evident is the ‘it’s-mine, not yours’ perception, the fact that the employing organization is paying for it should help to establish that such knowledge has JOINT ownership. Add to that that the employing organization is providing the environment in which the knowledge is being created. But there is another reason, arguably an even more compelling one for society as a whole.

By declaring that knowledge sharing in business is desirable, you – and I – are endorsing the universal principle of progress that it is necessary to be able to learn from experience, in my assertion from both one’s own employers’ as well as others’ tried-and-tested practice. My contention is that the flexible labor market has largely moved the unique knowledge base away from institutions to transiting employees. As such, the ability of organizations to learn from their own experiences has been replaced by the experiences of other, less related, experiences, increasing the length of the institutional learning curve and making decisions less rigorous. It’s the inevitable result of discontinuity.

Whilst I do not want to condemn the flexible labor market outright, industry and commerce’s embracement of short tenure hides an ice-berg like downside. It disallows employers from taking advantage of an important – arguable the more important – component of the knowledge base. So, by passively allowing the misconception that knowledge is exclusively owned by employees, employers are disenfranchising themselves – and, by extension, the wealth-creating machine. Simply put, they are only allowing themselves to utilise a part of the knowledge chain in the pursuit of good and better decision-making.

Allowing, for example, the convention that young managers should be able to learn from their own mistakes is just an excuse for poor decision-making and a cop-out for a dysfunctional business education system. Yes, mistakes are always going to be a part of management and lessons should always be learned. But when they are AVOIDABLE makes them expensively gratuitous and unchallenging to competent management. Good experiential learning (EL), which depends on the awareness of both one’s own employers’ knowledge and other employers’ knowledge, is a sensible response to repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons.

The difficulties of capture and application notwithstanding, without a change in the attitude towards knowledge sharing, our here today, gone tomorrow workplace will kill off the whole conception of Knowledge Management (KM) and EL as legitimate decision-making tools. Knowledge non-sharing makes ‘progress’ little more than the slow dance of one step forward, one step back, illustrative of how difficult it is to achieve productivity and competitiveness in the modern workplace.

As every historian can explain, those who don’t learn from their own and others’ lessons stop growing or regress. It happens with countries, with children and adults. It’s evident in the professions, and even in companies and other types of organization. As it is we have to put up with our short, selective and defensive memories. By disembodying organizations from their own knowledge and experience, the flexible labor market just makes things worse.

Whether academic or otherwise, if a persuasive argument can’t win the day, nothing will change. And in this context, the organization won’t survive, at least in its present life form.

If you’re right – and I hope you’re not – the usual pattern will be that the institution will need to see itself with its back to the wall before knowledge sharing, Knowledge Management (KM) and Experiential Learning (EL) finds its earned place. Until then, it will be the better learners that will inherit.

In their own small ways, the example can be seen in the many, many successful companies that fail or lose their way, some temporarily. One doesn’t have to look very far – the Fortune 500. The FT 100 and other annual geographical rankings will illustrate the rise and fall of companies unambiguously.

These examples are now so common as to make the lists unsurprising (what goes up must come down) but the bottom line is that, at some point in their lives, all were not very good experiential learners. And whatever the individual reasons, the flexible labor market is now a big enough factor to play an increasing role alongside the issue of institutional knowledge loss and the education-led inability to learn from experience. In the US, for example, the median rate of job tenure for ALL Fortune 500 companies is now just 3 years and 8 months. That’s across the board – all grades, including managers. And it is no coincidence that KM and EL are still in their infancy as decision-making tools in the practical world of commerce and industry and the academic world of business education.    

Are you making the assumption that one does not learn from other peoples’ experiences & knowledge? Nigel Brown, Sales & Marketing Manager at Independent Building Supplies, Auckland, New Zealand.

Arnold replies: Nope, I’m not saying that one does not learn from others. As stated, they’re valuable. But, without an intimate knowledge of one own employer’s knowledge and experience, which is the part of the knowledge mix that gets to walk out of the front door in our very flexible labor market, we’re minimizing the skillsets within the group. I would contend that it’s the part of the knowledge mix that’s the more important as everything else has to accommodate to the different and special way in which every organization operates. Otherwise, the organization risks losing its USP, it repeats its mistakes, it has to re-invent the wheel and the lessons of tried-and-tested past – whether that past was successful or unsuccessful – go by the way.

Do your employees fear sharing their knowledge? Viviana Cherbel, online freelancer.

Arnold replies: Non-sharing is a cultural, Anglo/Western characteristic stemming from, as you correctly observe, fear and one more distinguishing feature – very short-sighted management.

For the latter observation, the conventional wisdom is that knowledge belongs to the individual. Yet this understanding is arguably one of the bigger delusions that organizations have had foisted on themselves.

 It is eminently arguable that knowledge – and its related intellectual asset wisdom – has JOINT ownership with an establishment because the employer has paid for it and also provides the host environment.  It is time for sharing to be included in contracts of employment ……

Another aspect of the short-sighted point I made is that the very flexible labor market sees institute-specific knowledge and experience walk out of the front door at an alarmingly high rate, disallowing the employer from learning from its own experience.

Until employers realise that their knowledge and experience is NOT owned exclusively by their transiting employees, the pandemic of repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons will continue. It’s called experiential NON-learning. As such, sharing – in effect capturing knowledge and experience before it goes walkabout and then knowing how to apply it – becomes an essential part of good management. Unfortunately, managers themselves are no strangers to short employer tenure, so why should they bother?

For the employer, poor knowledge management is a long-term death wish in today’s high jobs churn. Without an ability to build on one’s own practice – in truth the underlying basis of most progress – the continual replacement of others’ knowledge and experience gradually erodes the institutions’ USP. And without the distinction of difference, competitiveness disappears.

I am not suggesting that outside knowledge and experience is not valuable. Only that, on its own, its not as effective as mixing it up with one’s own tried-and tested knowledge and experience. 

…. people are most happy to share (knowledge). Ask somebody to give a presentation for an audience, and most people will be delighted to do so. But ask somebody to write down what they know, and they do not like to do so. – Arjan van Unnik, Former Global Head Knowledge Management Royal Dutch Shell in Knowledge Management.

Arnold replies: I can confirm that many people are happy to share. The request just needs to be framed constructively. Also, that getting people to write things down doesn’t work. Writing seems to be something they can’t do. In the first place, any contribution is typically bland and lacking in incisiveness and rigor and, second, very few individuals understand the value and nature of tacit knowledge, the more important part of the knowledge mix.  

How we’ve handled it is through what we’ve called Oral Debriefing via a skilled interviewer or facilitator – either in-house trained or outsourced – because the spoken word is invariably a more efficient way of conveying the abstract and complex nature of elements like the nuances of corporate culture, management style, and the often-obscure issues surrounding decision making within groups. Done well, the oral debrief is a powerful way of capturing the hard-won and expensively paid for intellectual asset that keeps walking out of the front door.

MBA programs are running more experiential learning programs. In what topics is this most useful? Makenzie Darling, Market Development Manager, Toolwire, San Francisco, USA.

Arnold replies: I would say decision making.

It’s encouraging that some of the major business schools are starting to take an interest in EL but it’s a pity industry and commerce haven’t responded. For without the active co-operation of employers, the concept sort of falls down. 

The reason for this is that so few organizations do anything about capturing the experience that keeps on walking out of their front doors, no thanks to the short-tenure character of the flexible labor market. As such, rolling generations of replacement employees only have a part of the scenery with which to work, and not the most important bit either.

I’m not talking about the huge content of databases that contain mainly the institutions’ explicit knowledge. I’m referring to the more precious tacit knowledge, the how of know-how already tempered to the nature, circumstance and environment of the institution. For an employer, what happens is that this type of intellectual capital, what should be the core of the evidence base on which EL is predicated, gets displaced in favour of someone else’s experience. For decision makers, the most important part of their evidential base is lost.

As a general rule, the best type of progress comes from building on one’s own experience, not others’. Others’ experience is important but only in the context of the current employer, whose experience is unique, hard-won and already expensively paid for. And typically AWOL.

As it stands, EL educators are mainly using EL methodology on contrived experience. Decision makers deserve the real thing when they get round to making their determinations in the real world.

Do you really think that the 90% figure is right (refers to the amount of institution-specific knowledge that leaves when employees leave)? Doesn’t that ignore all the institutionalized knowledge (structural capital) that gets embedded in data and, most of all, processes? – Mary Adams, Trek Consulting, Boston, USA.

Arnold replies: I’m not too unhappy with the statement “that when individuals leave, they take with them up to 90% of employers’ unique knowledge and experience.” From our experience, the volume and quality of knowledge that can be gleaned from the capture techniques we use is substantially more than that embedded in the data/information/old knowledge that typically comes out of sophisticated data bases.

I’m aware that some data bases are impressively large but, however you rate it, data, information and “old” knowledge still have to be applied to new circumstances to make a new decision. It is with tacit knowledge that turns the old into the new, that makes it easier to grease the decision-making wheel. And when individuals leave, much of it goes AWOL

The volume, type and importance of the “evidence” that escapes typical documentation and ‘processes’ can be seen in the example of the technological triumph in Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was born. In the wake of the US Government’s decision to stop testing nuclear weapons, officials were concerned that the skills it developed would atrophy, so, in the event that it had to one day resume testing, it undertook a massive programme called the Knowledge Preservation Project (Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1995) to ensure that the expensively-acquired expertise it had accumulated over the years was not lost forever as archives progressively degenerated and scientists retired. As part of the programme, retired weaponeers were brought back to the laboratory for video taped interviews intended to salvage knowledge about nuclear bombs that could not be gleaned from blueprints and archived documentation (their words, not mine). Researchers recorded more than 2,000 videotapes. The rationale of John D. Immele, director of nuclear weapons technology at Los Alamos, at the time was: “We don’t want to press the erase button on our memory and go back to where we were 50 years ago.”

I like to recall our own example of the work we did for a major pharmaceutical company, which had its own extensive archives. Much of the knowledge we managed to extract was not visible in the available documentation. Interestingly enough, one of the most productive individuals was the departmental head’s departing secretary. She knew every which way of getting things done.

I wouldn’t be too worried about the institutional memory of past mistakes because if we assume that firms hire new employees of similar experience to those who leave, those new employees will also have memories of mistakes made and lessons learned. They won’t have been learned at that company, but that’s probably not so important. – Patrick Leach, Chief Executive Officer at Decision Strategies, Inc., Houston, Texas.

Arnold replies: Your latter point is spot on. It’s your former I would challenge.  Your assumption that new employers hire people with similar experiences may look the case but the reality is that every employer is different, requiring different decision making because of differing circumstances and environments. Other employers may well have memories of mistakes made and lessons learned, but one employer’s solution is not generally the answer to another’s.

In a genuine learning environment, what’s required is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution but an intimate awareness of the new employers’ experience applied to the new decision-maker’s prior experience. In the flexible labor market, the employer has typically allowed its know-how to go AWOL while the new appointee has to cope with his/her own inherent short-, selective- and defensive memory. This less than rigorous combination makes for less than rigorous decisions.

This observation is borne out by the work of Groysberg, Nanda, and Nohria into staff poaching, which represents a large proportion of executive and vocational churn in the labor market. When it comes to knowledge transferability between jobs/employers, they found that the performance of high flyers fell sharply and stayed well below old achievement levels thereafter. A total of 46% performed poorly in the year after they left one company for another. After they switched loyalties, their performance plummeted by an average of about 20% and did not climb back to the old levels even after five years.

One explanation is that the new company doesn’t have the same support services but on its own, it suggests that the traditional decision making process is also imperfect. I go with the corporate amnesia excuse and/or decision making without experiential learning proper. 

Any good ideas/techniques on how to prompt managers to think more critically about the decisions they make? – Louise Worsley, Director, PiCubed, Cape Town, South Africa.

Arnold replies: ” Ask them if they can quote any historical precedent within the company on which their decision(s) can be based. 

“That way, you (and they) can be reassured that there is a tried-and-tested evidential base for the APPLIED decision. Also that the decision is also relevant to organisation-specific circumstances. If the decision is based on another employer’s circumstances, the question can then be asked of the specific relevance. That way, you can be reassured that genuine experiential learning is taking place.”  

How does corporate memory translate into performance support? How do the events of yesteryear affect awareness and actions today? – Don Presant, President, Learning Agents, Winnipeg, Canada.

Arnold replies: The short answer is that best progress occurs organically, the building of one experience on another. Without an awareness of institutional-specific memory, an organization can’t learn from its own experiences. The flexible labor market’s short tenure has ensured that most of a new employee’s experience is based on OTHERS’ knowledge and tried-and-tested practice. This is not necessarily bad – it does fit into the argument that it brings new blood and new ideas – but, given that every business is special to itself, it is less relevant on its own. All knowledge and experience – even one’s own – has to be adapted because of new circumstances, but only using others’ knowledge and experience means that there is no relevant building block.

 Do this continuously over 40 years and an organization’s knowledge base gets progressively diluted to homeopathic levels, destroying distinctive physiognomies and providing an endlessly disrupted learning curve. My point is that the flexible labor market has to be complemented by systems that allow an organization to at least have an awareness of its past and then the ability to use it – i.e. apply it and learn more efficiently.

 Experiential learning does not mean repetition. Professor David Kolb’s acknowledged model of EL, which is all about being reflective, shows how this type of learning is different from other types of learning. From the employer’s viewpoint, it’s their own unique knowledge and experience that provides the best evidential basis from which – as already indicated – progress can more efficiently be less disruptive and more organic. 

If you sense big non-linear shifts in your markets, remember that “organizational forgetting” may be essential to meeting the challenges successfully – “When Organizational Memory Stands in the Way,” Harvard Business Review Blog Network,March 11, 2013, Vijay Govindarajan co-author of Reverse Innovation, and Srikanth Srinivas, author of Shocking Velocity.

Arnold replies:  I would suggest that the quoted Blackberry and Microsoft examples have little to do with being unable to forget; rather, the phenomenon they’re revealing is more to do with their decision makers being experiential NON-learners. And as far as Infosys in concerned, my suggestion is that its progress is down to it being a good experiential learner.

 There are only a handful of ways I know of how organizations, and the people who work for them, forget. They are through individuals’ short, selective and defensive memories and the mother and father of corporate amnesia – our very flexible labor market, where institutions’ unique knowledge and experience walk out of the front door on a regular basis. These prodigious factors – and medical intervention – aside, I’m not actually sure how its possible to impose forgetfulness. Perhaps Vijay and Srikanth really mean ‘unlearning’ but even then, is not unlearning a form of learning?

 In any event the premise that one has to forget in order to do something new is fatally flawed. Remembering is critical, if only as the evidential medium with which to transform old knowledge into new knowledge. Without an awareness of the old, the universal understanding that almost all learning – whether personal or corporate, from success and failure – is organic falls away. In truth, most progress occurs incrementally, from the building of one experience on top of another. This helps to create a framework of reference points from which to make informed judgments and help to refine decisions for new circumstances.

Forgetting – in the forms mentioned above – just erodes the learning cycle, an outcome that organizations think can be fixed by knowledge capture, a process that few do well. In truth it’s just the halfway house. Decision makers then have to know how best to APPLY the tried-and-tested past to the new circumstances and environment. It’s a discipline refined by the acknowledged expert in the field, David Kolb, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve Unoversity, Cleveland, Ohio. 

Genuine experiential learning, self evidently the ability to learn from experience, is one of business and business education’s huge black holes. Neither constituency does it well. For this dysfunction, the graphic dialogue in English novelist J. L. Carr’s 1972 book Harpole Report is apposite: “You have not had thirty years’ experience. You have had one year’s experience 30 times.” it better to promote from within the company or hire from the outside? – Dave Brookmire, President, Corporate Performance Strategies Inc. Atlanta, USA.

Arnold replies: At the end of the day, much depends on individual merit. But there is another consideration. New blood, however good, is not always transferable.

Supportive academic research for this suggests that the achievements of outsiders, especially stars, are institution specific and dependent on their employer’s physiognomies. The conclusions are instructive – and surprising.

The study into poaching, which represents a large proportion of executive and vocational churn, found that the performance of, for example, high flyers fell sharply and stayed well below old achievement levels thereafter. A total of 46% performed poorly in the year after they left one company for another. After they switched loyalties, their performance plummeted by an average of about 20% and did not climb back to the old levels even after five years.

There is much misunderstanding about the nature of acquired knowledge, experience and the so-called ”wisdom” of individual employees and the organisations for which they work. In truth, the wisdoms are separate, interconnected and reliant on each other’s unique character. Without each other – for example when the employee moves on – both become disassociated. And while employees can theoretically passage their ‘memory’, however remembered, to a new employer, replacements still have to be inducted into their new employers’ culture and way of working. Efficient Interchangeability is no guarantee.

Since teaching is one of the best ways to learn, how can we as leaders provide colleagues with the opportunity to teach relevant information to the rest of us? Jacqueline Brayman, Senior Consultant, Universal Leadership Group LLC, Grand Rapids, Michigan. USA.

Arnold replies: I’m assuming you’re looking for ways in which a leader can “share’ their knowledge and experiences with colleagues. There’s a technique called Oral Debriefing, which is a powerful way to passage such content.

It’s becoming an appropriate technique for ensuring continuity in our short-tenure workplace, where individuals – including managers – are changing their jobs on average every four years in some industrialized countries. And when they walk out of the front door, they can take with them up to 90% of their employer’s institutional-specific knowledge.

Done well – and then documented – it is a very portable medium for private distribution across and down the transient generations. It has to be constructed imaginatively, however, to capture the tacit element of knowledge – what I call the ‘how’ of know-how – in which case it could be the teaching opportunity you’re looking for.

Have you put any lessons learned last year to use? – Michelle LeBlanc, Social Media Specialist, New York, USA.

Arnold replies: Behind this question is a truly big idea. Imagine if employers could put their lessons learned to good use all the time?

Few companies do – or can do this – because they don’t have a formally established way of passing down their lessons learned to successive generation of employees. No thanks to the flexible labor market’s short jobs tenure, their knowledge and experience – the only source from which their lessons learned can emerge – is walking out of the front door every four or five years, with employers believing that the information contained in their data banks will suffice.

It doesn’t. The evidence for this is contained in academic research that finds that departing employees take with them up to 90% of their employers’ own knowledge and experience, leaving their paymaster, literally, empty handed, not of their explicit knowledge, which fills their data banks, but of the more useful tacit knowledge. Without said knowledge and experience, employers are unavoidably experiential non-learners, the cost of which is enormous.

Organizations CAN continue to take advantage of the flexible labor market and still hold on to their special knowledge and experience. It’s a way of recovering lost continuity, allowing rolling generations of employees to learn more effectively from their employers’ tried-and-tested experience and improve their decision making skills.

Teaching Students to Think and Learn – Susan Hadley, Director of University Services, Institute for Professional Development, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

Arnold replies: Whenever I see a comment like this, I rush to applause. Of course the ability to think and learn is a no-brainer. The facility to first reflect and then act would seem to be the precondition for whatever job one eventually does. Unfortunately, the education system sees tutelage differently. And because you – Susan – are running this discussion through a higher education portal, the sentiment is palpably important, for out of higher education comes many of our managers, who are responsible for a different type of employment. Managers make decisions while the others follow instructions.

That’s not to say that non-managers don’t have to make important decisions in their own labors. Theirs are generally of an operational nature, known generically as blue collars skills. And their kind of decisions are important for the smooth running of the choices of their white collar supervisors.

Hierarchical as the differences are, there is a difference in the way the future decision making bosses are – or should be – educated for the corporate world. Blue collar skills are generally predicated on available explicit knowledge while white collar administrative skills are grounded in the less-than-visible tacit knowledge that organizations generate. Explicit knowledge can be taught but tacit knowledge is best learned. And while teaching is instruction received, learning is instruction acquired out of an abstracted process of critical reflection, reasoned deduction, and applied action.

My own observation is that managers don’t get enough of being taught how to learn. The discipline is called experiential learning but ii doesn’t have to be undisciplined.

What’s new in decision making in the XX1 century? – Hugo Pereira, Marketing Manager, D-Sight, Brussels, Belgium.

Arnold replies: You draw attention to MIT’s Andrew McAfee’s useful paper on the value of intuition in decision making. On its own, it is – as he suggests – a vastly overrated way of making determinations and deployed much too often. He makes another point – that it needs to be improved by experience.

It is in this observation that I believe the discipline’s next big transformation will have to surface. Unfortunately, there is still a very high hurdle to jump – built entirely on the unintended consequence of the very flexible labor market. Here I am referring to the loss of the organization’s special, hard-won and expensively-acquired knowledge and experience that walks out of the front door every four or five years in many developed countries.

When they leave, the departed take with them up to 90% of their knowledge and experience, leaving their employer empty handed, not of their explicit knowledge, which fills the organizations’ data banks, but of the more useful tacit knowledge, the missing component of good decision making.

So, when it comes to linking intuition to employer-specific experience, there IS no available experience, only the practice of the latest incumbents, whose imported know-how is not always relevant, remembered accurately, is truthful, or even transferrable. The result? A very short organizational memory and an endemic corporate amnesia, the backwash of which is the innate ability not to be able to learn very well from their employers’ own tried-and-tested experiences. Back to intuition ….

Organizations can continue to take advantage of the flexible labor market and still hold on to their special knowledge and experience. It’s a way of recovering lost continuity, allowing rolling generations of employees to learn more effectively from their employers’ tried-and-tested experience and improve their decision making skills.

What approaches can be implemented so that learning in the workplace can occur faster and be more easily applied? – Anish Suri, Program Management Director, Dell, Dallas, USA.

Arnold replies: There’s a very simple thing that you can do. Provide individuals with a detailed oral debriefing of his/her predecessor, structured as a learning tool. Done well, it is a powerful way of ensure a measure of continuity that can pass across the tried-and-tested evidence that individuals can then apply to their own decision making in changed circumstances.

How to convince your top executives about knowledge management? – Bertrand Estrangin, Global Product Safety Manager, Solvay, Brussels, Belgium.

Arnold replies: As a starter, ask your boss if he/she is happy for replacement staff to repeat the institution’s past mistakes and reinvent wheels that have already been tried and tested. Then suggest that a proper KM agenda will enable the organization to continue using the knowledge and experience of prior employees – without having to put anyone back on the payroll.

In these tough times is the focus on increasing productivity and/or the financial status of the organisation and if so what metrics would be used? – John Cunnell, Comptryx, Taunton, U.K.

Arnold replies: Your question highlights an interesting muddle about productivity. Most companies think it has got something to do with output. It has, but so long as one’s competitors are equally unproductive, the insufficiency doesn’t show up too much.

In truth, the conventional definition short-changes the actual meaning. My own pet description is the ability to get from A to B without going via Z, which takes it out of the volume game and squarely into two other, arguably more accurate, areas of insight. They are productivity growth and the cost of it when it is wasted. Both give productivity a more genuine veneer – and it’s not an attractive one when it comes to today’s industrialised economies. There is another ancillary metric that is equally discerning – and worrying.

The former, usually calculated on a per capita basis, is the more accurate indicator of how efficient we are at continuing to accomplish our output. In the OECD, this has steadily declined over 50 years to the point where, in 2003, it was barely above zero (Groningen/Conference Board). The cost of wasted productivity is an actual, hard number of what we throw away, unnecessarily; in the case of several OECD countries this was between 6% and nearly 10% of GDP (Proudfoot), the UK figure, for example, being £100 billion (yes £100 billion) in 2005. How this translates into the other metric comes in the form of the individual organization’s Return on Investment (ROI), a key marker of productivity’s effectiveness. In an analysis of 20,000 US companies over nearly 50 years to 2011, this has dropped from nearly 7% to 1.3% (Compustat/ Deloitte), a figure that is also discomforting because the US has been the world’s productive economy during this period.

While these three matrixes all flag up the hidden measure of productivity, they also highlight the potential opportunity for improvement that has been historically overlooked by most businesses.

Rein your reactions to give reflections a chance. Do you have any comment on this? – Afzaal Malik, Internal Auditor at Mari Gas Company Limited, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Arnold replies: This is the type of question that could be a valuable indicator of organizational inefficiency. Anyone who makes decisions without being reflective is going to come a cropper.

If one is not reflective, it typically means that the action being undertaken is being made without thought, most likely instinctively or as a repetitive act. Instinct is never reliable and, in any event, only the preserve of the very, very experienced, whose knowledge is very likely the product of reflection anyway. Being reflective is key to all good decision making, for one main reason – change. Circumstances are always changing and the decision that was relevant yesterday cannot be relevant today or tomorrow.

That’s not to say that yesterday’s decision should be ignored. It provides the basis on which to apply the next decision. It’s called experiential learning, a discipline widely overlooked in industry/commerce and business education.

Do you think experiential learning simulations have a place in preparing students for entering the workforce? – Lindsey Gillian, Web Marketing Developer, Eagles Flight Training, Kitchener, Canada.

Arnold replies: Interesting that this form of experiential learning – it is unflatteringly called sandbox learning – has been around for almost a century and business educators have only just caught on that the acknowledged way in which we all learn can be adapted for those entering the workforce. It is thanks to Jean Piaget (1896-1980), the Swiss philosopher and psychologist, who spent much of his professional life listening to growing children, but – to be politically incorrect – the question has to be asked what the delay says about the self-same experiential learning abilities of our educators?

Valuable as this type of EL might be at implanting a mind set among the emerging generation of employees that most progress is operationally organic rather than instructively communicated, there is another form of EL that industry/commerce and business educationists have yet to welcome. It is the ability to learn from an employers’ institutional-specific experiences, important at any time but now critical in order to combat the disappearance of the organizations’ unique knowledge and experience that walks out of their front doors in the wake of the flexible labor market’s short-tenure practices.

It’s not rocket science but if an institution is unaware of its actual hard-won, distinctive and tried-and-tested experiences, it can’t learn from said experiences. Result? The pandemic of repeated mistakes, reinvented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter the workplace. It’s a very real and expensive problem that few employers – or educators – address in any sufficient way. If we have to wait another 100 years for this type of EL to be used to improve decision making in the workplace, our progress, which is already slowing, will be ….. (readers are invited to fill in the dots).

As a manager would you prefer an employee who is capable of ‘hard work’ or one who does ‘smart work’? Ramani Dhanaraj, Head, Department of Management, St. Joseph’s College for Women (Autonomous) Visakhapatnam, India.

Arnold replies: Every time the latter, although one should not decry someone who also works hard. The better question is why a manager is working hard. If they’re inefficient, they’re probably spending most of their time fire fighting, whereas if they’re working smarter – i.e. making better decisions in the first place – the workload is necessarily lower.

I would plumb for someone who was able to efficiently learn from experience. Less requirement, then, to have to work hard, with none of the attendant stress, wasted energy, unnecessary funding, etc etc. Oddly, most smart workers are also hard workers.

M&A integration: How to do it – Is integration success purely down to the managers who run it or the manager who runs the combined entities, or the M&A integration process? – Danny Davis, DD Consulting, Henley Business School, Reading, UK.

Arnold replies: It all depends on the lead company but there are few companies that do it well, whomever does it. The interesting point of research done by London Business School found that the failure rate for M&A’s is 50% for one overriding reason – the ethereal culture clash between the parties. More specifically, it is the inability to bridge the gap between contrasting values and beliefs, masking what is little more than mutual organizational misunderstanding. While companies appear to be happy to spend sizeable amounts to bring themselves together, they puzzlingly allocate very few resources to help keep them together.

In our work in utilising corporate KM vehicles, we regularly advise that companies produce their corporate histories in a serious manner and keep it updated. In some cases, there is time in the planning phase to produce one. In the event of an acquisition or merger, it helps to bridge the unfamiliarity/culture gap in the merged culture. Winning hearts and minds is an immediate necessity. Without the commitment of both parties – and this is one powerful way of illustrating wider differences without having to learn about them from scratch – it is difficult to achieve the operational and strategic objectives of the coupling.

Why do we reinvent the wheel? – Simon Osborne, Head of Mobilisation & Asset Management, ETDE FM, Leicester, UK.

Arnold replies: Good question. Basically it’s because we are not very good experiential learners – for two reasons. Employers don’t provide the necessary evidence to allow their employees to know that a particular wheel has already been invented and secondly, employees are not taught how best to experientially learn.

It’s something that is missing in the way we do business, not helped by the very flexible labor market that gives employers short-tenure jobs, corporate amnesia and a lot of unnecessary re-invented wheels.

Best practice: Six strategies for GR leaders trying to win a seat at the table – John Agrans, Mountain View, California, USA.

Arnold replies: You suggest ways in which HR should be able to react to win a seat at the table; presumably you mean the boardroom table. May I flesh out a suggestion that would fit comfortable within your ‘Remember that you are sitting on a data gold mine’ list of guidance.

Take control of the induction process.

Since the early 1980s, the flexible labor market has given most companies and other organizations as many as 10 complete staff changes, including top decision makers.

For all that time industry and commerce have had to depend entirely on the experiences of corporately unfledged appointees, whose imported know-how is not always relevant, remembered accurately, truthful, or even transferrable. The statistics say that the average tenure across most of industry and commerce is just five years, effectively 25% shorter if one takes into account the initial acclimatization phase and the employee’s end-period of employment. And when an individuals walks out of the front door, they take up to 90% of their employer’s institutional-specific knowledge with them.

To extract maximum productivity from a transient workforce, much depends on the quality of an organization’s induction processes. With the flexible labor market now irreversible, conventional induction and efforts to improve employee retention are marginal solutions. It should be possible to lengthen and improve the productivity phase of transient employees by at least 25%.

On the premise that there is an intimate relationship between knowledge and power, this should increase HR’s standing.

What are your experiences of the use of dialogue within experiential learning? – Bob Larcher, Team, Leadership and Management Development Consultant, Toulouse, France.

Arnold replies: Dialogue is the most efficient way to extract knowledge, especially tacit knowledge, from an individual. If it is then recorded, it becomes the most efficient way to pass it across the workforce and down the generations. Self-initiated dialogue – i.e. an individual trying to identify one’s ‘knowledge’ on his/her own – invariably lacks substance and depth. The trick is in the asking – by an incisive questioner. The better the latter, the better the former.

What Would Your Successor Do? – Rahul Neel Mani, Co-founder, Editor, Grey Head Media, Noida, India.

Arnold replies: Perhaps a better way of looking at this is to first ask the more relevant question: What did your predecessor do?

That way, you would know the organization-specific background to the problem you’re addressing – and be able to apply his/her experience to the decision you have to make.

It’s called experiential learning, a discipline much neglected in today’s workplace where job-tenure is short. It is only then that your question should come in but the genesis of a process to improve decision making will have been established. What you do will then be useful to your successor.

In this is an opportunity for the employer – the ability to NOT suffer the organizational knowledge loss that will walk out of the front door. It’s a way of ensuring continuity – and being able to take advantage of erstwhile employees without having to put them back on the payroll, or experience repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels or other unlearned lessons that litter the workplace.

Do you think experiential learning simulations have a place in preparing students for entering the workforce? – Lindsey Gillian, Web Marketing Developer, Eagles Flight Training, Kitchener, Canada.

Arnold replies: Interesting that this form of experiential learning – it is unflatteringly called sandbox learning – has been around for almost a century and business educators have only just caught on that the acknowledged way in which we all learn can be adapted for those entering the workforce. It is thanks to Jean Piaget (1896-1980), the Swiss philosopher and psychologist, who spent much of his professional life listening to growing children, but – to be politically incorrect – the question has to be asked what the delay says about the self-same experiential learning abilities of our educators?

Valuable as this type of EL might be at implanting a mindset among the emerging generation of employees that most progress is operationally organic rather than instructively communicated, there is another form of EL that industry/commerce and business educationists have yet to welcome. It is the ability to learn from an employers’ institutional-specific experiences, important at any time but now critical in order to combat the disappearance of the organizations’ unique knowledge and experience that walks out of their front doors in the wake of the flexible labor market’s short-tenure practices.

It’s not rocket science but if an institution is unaware of its actual hard-won, distinctive and tried-and-tested experiences, it can’t learn from said experiences. Result? The pandemic of repeated mistakes, reinvented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter the workplace. It’s a very real and expensive problem that few employers – or educators – address in any sufficient way. If we have to wait another century for this type of EL to be used to improve decision making in the workplace, our progress, which is already slowing, will be ….. (readers are invited to fill in the dots).

Stop doing the same thing over and over – learn Agile Project management. – Mike Edwards, mentor, project/program management, Kitchener, Canada.

Arnold replies: If one is doing the same thing over and over again, it’s tempting to assume that management skills are poor. But the other possibility is that one suffering from corporate amnesia. In today’s business environment, this is typically due to the very flexible labor market, which ensures a high level of staff churn, its resultant short job tenure and, because acquired knowledge and experience keeps on walking out of the front door, can’t learn organically. The statistics say that the average length of time employees stay with their employers is around five years while other research suggests that up to 90% of the knowledge in any organization is embedded and synthesized in peoples’ heads. When they’ve left the premises, organizations typically have to re-invent the wheel.

In today’s nomadic workplace, the challenge for organizations is to first accommodate the loss of all its important institutional-specific knowledge and not just the explicit knowledge. If it included the vital tacit knowledge, this would then help trainers orchestrate even more effective project management through proper experiential learning.

Traditional decision-making models and theories are falling behind the fast pace environment of the XXI century – Hugo Pereira, Marketing & Communications Manager, D-Sight, Brussels, Belgium.

Arnold replies: You’re dead right. As you suggest, we need to take a completely different approach to decision making, both at the employer and educational ends of the business continuum.

This is predicated on the single biggest change in the workplace for a century – the flexible labor market. For more than 30 years high employee turnover and consequent short jobs tenure has removed all of the employer’s medium- and long-term memory, even much of their short-term memory. This has introduced to industry and commerce the phenomenon of corporate amnesia, this ‘memory loss’ preventing the organization from learning from its own experiences and helping to explain the pandemic of repeated mistakes, the reinvented wheels and the other unlearned lessons that litter the workplace. The cost is enormous and the problem largely unaddressed by both industry/commerce and even business education, which doggedly insists that its ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is the answer.

In truth, the transient nature of employees, including top decision makers, means that conventional business education has to be more aligned to being organization-specific in order for institutions to retain as much continuity as possible. Which means that employers need to better manage their organizational memory and educators need to better teach how to experientially learn, the discipline ably refined – but still widely neglected – by the likes of David Kolb and others.

Shaping the Role of the New CIO – it won’t happen on it’s own. – Dean Lane, Founder, Office of the CIO, San Francisco, USA.

Arnold replies: A suggestion for inclusion in your curriculum for future CIOs. It’s one that is so obvious to make its oversight enough to seriously hamstring decision makers, which is how things stand at the moment.

Given the high rate of staff turnover in today’s flexible labor market, the relevance of institutional-specific knowledge and experience is more important than ever. Without it, companies have to depend entirely on the experiences of corporately unseasoned replacements, whose imported know-how is not always relevant, remembered accurately, truthful, or even transferrable.

What I’m suggesting is that incoming CIOs – as well as other key decision makers – be presented with accurate and readable accounts of their employer’s long-term, medium-term and short-term organizational memory – the former in the guise of the conventional corporate history done as a serious learning tool and the latter in the form of equally instructional oral debriefings of prior incumbents. That way, individuals would not have to spend time unnecessarily repeating mistakes, re-inventing the wheel or being unable to take advantage of lessons previously learned. Individuals need to be acquainted with how to experiential learn, which is where your curriculum comes in.

Conventional induction and training is essential but inadequate for today’s ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ executive, widely lacking in the experience and tacit knowledge that is key to institutional character and the ability to benefit quick enough to fit productively into the typical job tenure of less than five years.

A return on investment (ROI) for records management. Can you demonstrate the increase in organizational effectiveness and performance (in addition to cost reduction opportunities) through records management modernization? This is exactly what we are doing at the FAO of the UN. Stephen Katz, Chief, Knowledge Management and Library Services, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations, Rome, Italy.

Arnold replies: You’re right of course Stephen, the ROI is a requirement for any investment. But for records management, trying to do either a financial or knowledge calculation is – I think – difficult, if not impossible, so I’d be interested in how you’re doing it. In this respect, you may find the attitude of the World Bank instructive. They’ve been involved in upgrading their document management processes with oral debriefings.

In 1997 Jochen Kraske, the head of the World Bank Group Historical Office, acknowledged that even though most of its work processes is largely designed around documentation, much remains unrecorded. Decisions taken, especially those regarding policies, were not always reflected in the files. “The voluminous paper record may provide no more than bare facts, and even that record often reflects the desire to gloss over disagreements and serious questions, or the desire to sell or excuse. An additional vital source of information is the views and perceptions of those who participated in the decision making processes. We can learn much about what happened and why by asking those involved when a loan was identified and appraised, a crucial policy decision taken, a particular contract awarded.”

I’ve quoted him in my new book “The death of wisdom: why our companies have lost it – and how they can get it back” (Business Expert Press) due out mid-October. Kraske said that an effective oral history program “can address the problem of this gap by recording, before time dilutes or erases them, the memories of executive directors, borrowers, managers and staff, who participate in key events and developments in the bank’s evolution. Catching and questioning key participants in important decisions before time takes its toll will do much to fill in the record.”

The bank’s experience, he added, was also of interest to policy makers, development practitioners, and academic communities in both developing and advanced countries, who look to it to throw light on what was done, and whether it worked, thus helping—they hope—to avoid the errors of the past. With the passage of time, and as older staff retired, there had been a loss of institutional memory. It is easy today to be unaware of what happened yesterday on important issues, he added. Staff often learn of the past, if they learn it at all, accidentally or incidentally, in a fragmentized fashion. Without the history, new staff in particular “may be missing an important component of institutional culture —of understanding what the bank is and how it got there.”

My own conclusion is that the added value of allowing an organization to make use of its employees after they’ve left the institution is an approach that further maximizes the investment in human capital. Given that the organization doesn’t have to keep their departed employees on the payroll, this must be an enticement for nil-cost – or comparatively little cost – gain if there ever was one. It really is a no-brainer ……

Alongside an examination of the problem of corporate amnesia and the solution, my own research illustrates quite clearly the productivity shortfalls that experiential non-learning can impose on organizations and countries.

Creative Knowledge Retention – Avoiding Organisatonal Memory Loss – Ashley Andres Gonzalez, Head of Marketing at Ark Group Australia, Sydney, Australia.

Arnold replies: You’ve got your finger on a big new business issue, well not exactly new because it’s been on-going ever since the flexible labour market kicked off in the late 1970s, but only now beginning to get acknowledged.

Academic research estimates that up to 90% of the knowledge in any organisation is embedded and synthesized in peoples’ heads. When employees walk out of the front door, that’s it. Typically, the knowledge, experience and wisdom they take with them is thereafter unavailable for use by the institution that funded it. For those affected, ’tis ironic, sad and not very smart. Proper experiential learning is going to be the next big thing!

Can you share with me the various methods used for tacit knowledge capturing? – Noufal PP Manager (Library and Information Service) at Tata Motors, Jamshedpur, India.

Arnold replies: My own experience in developing a workable methodology is instructive.

Yes, tacit knowledge IS difficult to capture. And yes, it can be effectively transmitted through conversational techniques, which brings to the fore strategies like communities of practice, best practice sessions, story telling and mentoring, etc.

But being conversational they are ephemeral and the outcomes need to be remembered in order to be useful, encumbered by the not unfamiliar problem of individuals’ short, selective and defensive memory recall. And for the organization, they are a one-generational approach – i.e. they only last for the tenure life of the individual that, these days, is very low. So, to be effective, tacit knowledge has to be recorded in some way for transmission down the generations.

The Knowledge Preservation Project at Los Alamos (to capture the know-how to produce an atomic bomb) and BP’s Learning Histories (to solve a dangerous butane leakage problem) are excellent examples that demonstrate that tacit knowledge CAN be documented. The former used video-taped interviews with retired weaponeers while the latter recalled their experiences anonymously and in their own words in a way that reflected their collective learning experience. The transcripts were then used to extract insights that became a best practice manual.

My own experience found that video was very expensive while individuals found it very difficult to write or even verbally articulate the necessary knowledge and experience on their own, often only wanting to disclose very selectively. Many did not even know how to define tacit knowledge. Given the degree of difficulty in understanding what it is, the most efficient and cost-effective way of capturing it was to use a ‘facilitator”, either an externally skilled interviewer or a trained-up employee, to orally debrief the participants. Like the BP model, ‘lessons’ can be extracted. Done sensitively and professionally, the volume of tacit knowledge that can surface is astonishing, the most prolific example of mine being a departing departmental secretary of a large pharmaceutical company.

Once documented, the knowledge (and yes, once documented, the knowledge becomes explicit) can be passed down the transitory generations of workers to become powerful instruments of experiential learning. I like to suggest to employers that it enables them to more fully use the knowledge and experience of their employees AFTER they’ve left their employ – and without having to keep them on the payroll.

Capturing Tacit Knowledge of Teachers Is Critical – Barbara Bowen, Tacit Knowledge Expert & Knowledge Architect, Seattle, USA.

Arnold replies: You’ve put your finger on the single most important component of successful experiential learning and decision making. In our flexible labor market, staff turnover is now high enough for companies and other organizations to have no medium- or long-term memory. The only effective memory they have is short-term – and that usually leaves after four years, leaving the organization with virtually no inheritance and a legacy that ensures the repeated mistakes, reinvented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter the marketplace. The usual argument is that replacements’ knowledge and experience is transferable. But others’ knowledge and experience is typically not always relevant, remembered accurately, truthful, or even transferrable. There is a substantial body of evidence to support this, among it the work I’ve done on the subject. If of interest, The Death of Wisdom outlines the various capture mediums, how tacit knowledge can be captured and a methodology adapted to the modern workplace for organizations to learn from their own experiences using David Kolb’s acknowledged model.

What have been the “ah-hah” moments of learning in your life? What helped to create them? – Asha Singh, Executive business coach and trainer, Be Better Communications, Milan, Italy.

Arnold replies: I was listening to a BBC radio program on heavyweight boxers in which one of the 1930s champions was explaining how he had beaten his opponent. One of the boxer’s throwaway lines in the archive crackle was that he had spent time examining the newsreel footage of his opponent’s previous fight and, from that, was able to derive a strategy to beat his adversary. It struck me that the film clip the boxer had seen all those years ago was, to all intents and purposes, the sporting equivalent of an organization’s ‘memory’ and that the individual was using experience – someone else’s experience – as a learning tool.

My imagination then took flight. Was not the boxer the forerunner of hundreds of thousands of other sportsmen and women who, since then, have accelerated their performances to an extent greater than in any previous period in history? Of course, training techniques had improved, as had athletes’ diets, medical procedures, and that prime incentive, money, but – I asked myself – could their employment of ‘memory’ in this way also be a factor in the dramatic improvement in performances over almost the entire range of sports? The fact that film and video usage in sports reporting has been around for about the same amount of time—and that most top sportsmen and women routinely use the medium to examine their own and each other’s performances—seemed not uncoincidental. There had to be a relationship between historical awareness and decision making perceptiveness in the workplace.

Thus began my quarter-century inquiry into how employers could capture and, importantly, apply their own prior knowledge and experience in a business environment where job-tenure was short, corporate amnesia long and decision-making poorer for both.

What is ‘insight’ and how can I get some? – Amy Pritchett, Associate Professor at Georgia Tech, Greater Atlanta, USA.

Arnold replies: Insight is a synonym for wisdom.

Where are all the jobs going? Lessons from the first Industrial Revolution and 150 years of pain – History, Future. Now. – Tristan Fischer, CEO and Founder, Lumicity Ltd, Hemel Hempstead, UK.

Arnold replies: Tristan, all your posts are insightful, just like your ‘History, Future, Now’ statement, a variation of my own perspective that there is a sticky connection between yesterday, today and tomorrow. Unfortunately history is not a fashionable word in the business world, too often considered “dry” and/or irrelevant. Would you know it, Harvard is the only university where business history is a compulsory component of all first-year students.

Its importance is now more relevant than ever. Since the 1980s most organizations have replaced their entire workforce around eight times. And given that when individuals walk out of the front door, they take with them up to 90% of their employers’ own special knowledge and experience, it means that few organizations are able to benefit from their expensively funded and hard-won hindsight. While exiting employees can theoretically passage their ‘memory’, however remembered, to a new employer, the source organisation is typically left in oblivion.

In truth, we have huge swathes of industry and commerce without any of their own inheritance and don’t – actually can’t – develop organically, an explanation for all those repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons in which we specialise.

We need to build the significance of a historical perspective into business and industry, including business education. Instead of using the passé word history, I’ve always referred to the subject as organisational memory (OM). it seems to be catching on.

On information overload and decision making – Professor John Payne, Duke Institute for Brain Science, Duke University, Levine Science Research Center, Durham, North Carolina, USA.

Arnold replies: Your interesting talk around information overload and decision making doesn’t make decision makers look very efficient.This observation gets plenty of backing. A 2005 study published in Harvard Business Review found that 55% of leaders are associated with below-average corporate performance. Just 15% of the individuals studied over 25 years – a period of growing business education – showed a consistent ability to manage innovation and organizational change. An even more instructive 2004 study from the consulting, technology and outsourcing services company Capgemini found that senior managers in large British companies admitted that one in four of their decisions was wrong, with the rate in the financial services sector being nearly one in three. With an average 20 ‘business critical’ decisions taken by each manager every year, this equates to a wrong determination every eight weeks by each of every one of an average 33 decision-makers in every organization.

Whilst these ‘snapshots’ should not detract from the fact that the majority of decisions that managers make are right, the fact remains that many decision makers are not doing productivity and competitiveness any favours. Incongruously, the same general performance among their vocational subordinates would likely not be tolerated.

Information overload notwithstanding, my own work in this area suggests that there is a huge gap in the way managers make and are taught to make their decisions. No thanks to the very flexible labor market, their determinations are typically grounded in the experiences of prior employers, which are not always relevant, remembered accurately, truthful, or even transferrable. On top of this, the data, information and knowledge usually provided by their new employers excludes the one crucial component on which most good decision making depends – tacit or cognitive knowledge, which Professor Payne refers to in terms of fluency.

Tacit knowledge is the event-specific, organization-specific, person-specific and time-specific ‘how’ of know-how that defines a new employer’s very existence. Much of it is implicit, ambiguous and esoteric, and acquired largely by experience that is functional – and allowed to walk out of the front door never to be utilised by its patron. It is through tacit knowledge that most erudition takes place and where better decision making can emerge. In the pursuit of better decision making, it is both this institution-specific content and an area of instruction called experiential learning that organizations and business schools neglect.

What advice do you have for colleges and universities looking to deliver corporate training? – Amrit Ahluwalia, Managing Editor, Toronto, Canada.

Arnold replies: The short-tenure workplace has changed completely the dynamic of business education. Employers have to enable their rolling generations of employees to learn from their own, unique tried-and-tested outcomes.

The discipline is the widely ignored practice called Experiential Learning, the educational requirements for which are different from the one-size-fits-all approach that most colleges and universities provide.

Blue-collar skills are generally predicated on available explicit knowledge while white-collar administrative skills are grounded in the less-than-visible tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be taught but tacit knowledge, the more valuable component of decision making proficiency, is best learned. The distinction is palpable. Teaching is instruction received while learning is instruction acquired out of an abstracted process of critical reflection, reasoned deduction, and applied action.

In conjunction with industry and commerce, which must purposefully better manage their organization memory before it walks out of the front door, business educators need to teach the next generation how to learn from the self-same organization-specific experiences. It’s not the usual way of providing instruction.

The fear of losing power – Paul Keijzer, CEO and Managing Partner of Engage Consulting, Malaysia, Pakistan and UAE.

Arnold replies: Your point about short termism is well taken. Yes, it puts all sorts of unhealthy pressure on everyone but there is another issue that is even more serious related to the flexible labor market, which has given us short-tenure employment. I am suggesting that the power has already shifted.

With the relationship between knowledge and power intimately linked, the corporate body has, quite deliberately and entirely unwittingly, allowed its command to be displaced, challenging flexible working’s critics. No longer are individuals an aggregate part of an established institution. Individuals are the institution for as long as they remain in situ. Then, when the face changes, as it is doing on average every four or five years in many developed economies, the institution changes, or more accurately, tries to change, bereft of its continuity and at the mercy of new brooms. Ordered evolution has become a shapeless revolution with little regard for the one corporate asset that represents the organization’s life form – its institution-specific knowledge and experience. It presages a mercurial world, with such things as corporate culture, ethos, values, and tried-and-tested usage struggling to maintain an even keel.

Having chosen to operate in isolation to its own hard-won and expensively acquired experience, the motor of much of Western society’s wealth machine has largely disempowered itself. I am not suggesting that the flexible labor market should be abandoned as a workplace strategy; it has some extremely valuable features. I only suggest that the better management of OM and use of proper Experiential Learning will help to counterbalance the evident institutional disenfranchisement.

“Experience, it turns out, often can keep you where you are rather than helping you to move forward and see new possibilities” Rajesh Gopal, self employed management consultant, Bengaluru, India.

Arnold replies: My short answer to your re-quote from “The Most Classic Hiring Mistake” is: Only if you won’t or can’t be a genuine experiential learner.

An experiential learner refers, self evidently, to someone or an institution that has the ability to learn from experience, not only from oneself but also from others.

It is a discipline that gets little attention from business education or employers. From the former, it is not taught properly. And for the latter, little relevant institution-specific knowledge and experience is passed to successive generations of short-tenure employees, making most employees – and their employers – experiential non-learners, which accounts for the pandemic of repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter the workplace..

I’m reminded of the dialogue in English novelist J. L. Carr’s 1972 book Harpole Report: “You have not had thirty years’ experience. You have had one year’s experience 30 times.” Yes, experience is an important element in an employee’s decision making skills but only if employees can effectively apply their own and their employers’ experience to changing circumstances.

Corporate memory is rarely tapped into. Most people seem to jump to conclusions based on insufficient data, so even if corporate memory were tapped into, much of what would be learned would actually be inaccurate. Very complex issue. – Mathew Georghiou, CEO, MediaSpark Inc, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Arnold replies: With your point that individuals aren’t able to come to good conclusions based on historical evidence, you’ve arrowed in on another big black hole in business education. Educators ignore the discipline known as experiential learning, self evidently the ability to learn from actual tried-and-tested experience, so for all the difficulties you mention and even if we do have the evidence, we still don’t know how to properly apply it.

“I’d get rid of all MBA’s.” — Professor Henry Mintzberg. What do you think? – Ismail Berkan, Lean Startip Consulting, Carrefour, San Francisco, USA.

Arnold replies: Tempting idea – there’s so much evidence around that MBAs and other forms of business education are not fit for purpose – but I think I’d rather reform the existing broken system. There are several huge black holes in business education that, for me, need urgent attendance. One is the widespread absence of suitable history in the curriculum – business, management and corporate history – and secondly, the non-existence of any proper instruction how to be better experiential learners.

Before you doze off, both provide different forms of inheritance, which would enable the next generation to pick up where the last left off. The presence of the first would give new entrants a better awareness of their shared business heritage, both cultural and evidential, while proper experiential learning would allow the more organizational-specific ability to reduce the pandemic of repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter the workplace, a function of the actively-encouraged and discontinuous short-tenure workplace – and our poor business education. Instead of the theoretical bias of existing business education, both would provide the evidence of actual tried-and-tested practice that could be applied to changing circumstances. The upshot? Better decision-making.

Personally, I love business history, especially when about proven concepts that might be applicable now. In KM, as elsewhere, they are often called Case Studies, hopefully with rich documentation on the best practices or lessons learned. Is this within your definition? – Douglas Weidner, Chairman, International KM Institute, Washington D.C., USA.

Arnold replies: In terms of history, case studies are next to best, typically used as snapshots to explain the workings of some functional discipline. They are mostly subject-specific and, as such, disaggregate their inter-relationship with other management factors and influences. They also often represent examples in unfamiliar geographical and industry sectors, so cater for the generalized one-size-fits-all approach to business education. That’s not necessarily bad in pre-employment, but this approach does neglect to associate the reality of connecting others’ experience to a contemporary employer.

As they stand, case studies are characteristically detached. To be useful, they need to be interrelated historically and applied specifically to changed circumstances. If anything, the best case studies are ones that integrate broad historical evidence rather than one-generational samples, and then deeply integrated within the taught decision-making processes.

What usually happens is that students with are presented with 20 pages on a company they do not know and told to pronounce on its strategy the next day. I’m partial to Bailey and Ford’s argument that although a scientific approach may be useful for the study of management, it is not at all clear that it helps in teaching management. They confirm my view that the practice of management is best taught as a craft, rich in lessons derived from experience and oriented toward taking and responding to action.

I think that those that seem reluctant to value history, don’t really understand what it offers. If “history” is someone’s hot button, let’s just not use that word. Let’s just give them the same answer but call it something else. – Don McAlister, Program and Knowledge Management Advisor, McAlister Consulting, Los Angeles, USA.

Arnold replies: Your observation about history being an uncool description of the genre is “on the button.”

Instead, I use ‘Organizational Memory’ as the characterization, which seems to work better, especially when I use it to illustrate the phenomenon of corporate amnesia arising from our short tenure workplace, the loss of one’s special knowledge and experience when individuals walk out of the front door and all the repeated mistakes and other unlearned lessons that follow.

That said, there is still much misunderstanding about its value, with many still thinking that there’s no sticky connection between yesterday, today and tomorrow because things “change”. It is because things change that it has value. As you suggest, the reality is that it provides important contextual evidence to accommodate the change. For me, it is a dress rehearsal for good decision making.

“…. obvious improvements in many sectors are not happening due to the fact that lessons identified do not become lessons learned! We are searching for the Holy Grail to overcome this issue. – Rob van der Spek, Director of DNV Knowledge Management advisory services, Utrecht, Netherlands.

Arnold replies: “I like your description of the problem that lessons identified do not become lessons learned. I, too, have been working on the ‘holy grail’ but from a slightly different angle.

Our experience is that technology on its own – i.e. our digital data banks – typically deals only with explicit knowledge rather than the more important tacit component. Alongside this ‘communities of practice’, whole departments – in fact the general employee base, including managers – suffers from continual breakup, which disrupts institution-specific cultural influences and disempowers the use of most established learning processes, which usually depend on operatives being resident.

Our approach has been to deal with knowledge loss BEFORE individuals walk out of the front door, allow collaborative extraction of lessons learned and enable said lessons to be passed down to successive generations for them to apply to changing circumstances using David Kolb’s acknowledged experiential learning methodology. It needs to be a continuous cycle to proactively address short jobs tenure, corporate amnesia and experiential NON-learning.

By suggesting that building a collective memory is a major challenge, you are presumably questioning the effort involved in getting employees to change their decision-making habits. You’re right. Big, big problem. What we’ve tried to do is to gradually build employee co-operation into contracts of employment. Actual co-operation can be difficult for people who know they are ineffective and others who are dismissed but, mostly, individuals are flattered to be included when it is suggested that their input could be used to continue to improve decision making. There are certainly more than enough candidates to retain enough of the important knowledge, which – in turn – can always be prudently reduced to accommodate circumstances.

But the main difficulty is getting executive approval, which may be the other major challenge to which you refer. They usually see It as too difficult, too transparent or too new. When those hurdles are jumped, the perception is that cost-benefit is not obvious. Doing a conventional ROI on the value of knowledge is not easy. Our strategy is normally to ask the organization to privately estimate the cost of their repeated mistakes, of wheels that are re-invented, of change that takes more time than considered necessary and the expense and extra time involved of firefighting. Then, what percentage of the wage bill or the value of important projects would it be worth to avert inherent problems? The clincher sometimes is to ask them if they would like to use the experience of former employees – without having to put them back on the payroll.

While it’s always difficult for them to make the calculations, there is some academic research on the subject, which I mention in my book. For example a team of US academics computed the impact of what they called the forgetting phenomenaon the learning life cycle of skilled manual tasks in a manufacturing plant. Their calculation was that project performance could be expected to retrogress to 52% of optimum output. Approaching the problem from the viewpoint of staff turnover, a US actuarial and consulting company computed that a retail store would have to sell 3,000 additional pairs of khaki pants at $35 apiece to overcome the loss of one worker. Elsewhere a Californian management and training consulting firm found that employee turnover in a 400-plus IT service provider in New Zealand was costing more than NZ$16 million a year.

The value that organizations put on their hard-won and expensively-acquired knowledge provides a nuclear indicator whether or not they are genuine learning organizations. For many, knowledge is just an all-purpose article of trade that can be acquired simply by hiring. For them, their own acquired ‘wisdom’ is of little worth. For the few others, it has huge added value to improve decision-making, productivity and competitiveness in a workplace where institution-specific knowledge is as expendable as the disposable culture we’ve inherited. The dialogue in English novelist J. L. Carr’s 1972 book Harpole Report says it better: “You have not had thirty years’ experience. You have had one year’s experience 30 times.”

Not learning from lessons is a real problem, even those presented in the hundreds of evaluations conducted on programs and projects in the African continent. The work of Klaus Deininger and Bina Agarwal are excellent on the importance of property rights yet it is not as prominent in the literature as it should be.Tara K. Persad, monitoring and evaluation practitioner, Ottawa, Canada.

Arnold replies: Yes, there have been several notables who have done excellent work on Africa. Another is Hernando de Soto. And yes, sad that they have not had enough attention. I think I might have one or two of the reasons, at least when it comes to Africa. On the part of individual African countries, dogma is king alongside a poor historical awareness supported by the oral tradition of remembering and learning.

For their financial sponsors, the ‘aid industry’, which is funded by both the old and the new colonialists, experiential learning is entirely displaced by at least several modern phenomena. For the old colonists, it is guilt and political correctness. For the new variant of colonists like the Chinese and the Americans, it is political correctness disguised by the same motivation of their predecessors – geo-political and economic opportunism. That said, President Bush Jnr. also displayed momentary dogma when he thought that the solution to the sub-prime crisis – the public ownership of private assets, a la nationalization – was too ‘socialist’.

Good experiential learning is clearly more difficult for some.

If culture is indeed so important to business success, why is it not upheld? – Chander Mohan Nagpal, Business and Process Excellence Leader, Dow Chemical, Zurich, Switzerland.

Arnold replies: Cultural estrangement is an unintended consequence of a phenomenon that we have been actively encouraging over the last 30-odd years – the flexible labor market. Short jobs tenure over this period has seen around six or seven complete changes in organizational staffing, so what chance is there of an employer holding on to its cultural heritage? None – unless institutions have a policy of providing an inheritance that can be used to override the discontinuity and the loss its special knowledge and experience.

The most portable medium is the traditional corporate history, done NOT as the typical hagiography every 50 or 100 years but as a serious and readable document of record that can have several other uses associated with the desertion of institution-specific culture.

With the relationship between knowledge and power intimately linked, the corporate body has, quite deliberately and entirely unwittingly, allowed its command to be displaced. No longer are individuals an aggregate part of an established institution. Individuals ARE the institution for as long as they remain in situ. Then, when the face changes, as it is doing on average every four or five years in many developed economies, the institution changes, or more accurately, tries to change, bereft of its continuity and at the mercy of new brooms. Ordered evolution has become a shapeless revolution.

With little regard for the one corporate asset that represents the organization’s life form—its institution-specific knowledge and experience – it presages a mercurial world, with such things as corporate culture, ethos, values, and tried-and-tested usage struggling to maintain an even keel. Having chosen to operate in isolation to its own hard-won and expensively acquired experience, the motor of much of western society’s wealth machine is largely disempowering itself.

My suggestion is not to abandon the flexible labor market as a workplace strategy. Rather, better manage one’s own Organizational Memory.

What are the best change practices you know of or have used to manage ongoing organization downsizing? Lynne Allegra, Head, Organizational Change and Consulting, Sanofi, New York, USA.

Arnold replies: Before your key knowledge owners walk out of the front door, ensure you do a comprehensive oral debriefing to capture as much as possible of your hard-won and expensively paid-for intellectual capital. Because they’re being made redundant it might be necessary to find some way to compensate them but the captured knowledge and experience will be invaluable when you begin to expand again.

How do you distinguish the difference between action learning and experiential learning? For me it seems that you are discussing action learning when you write about people learning from their experience on the job and that experiential learning is the classroom activities. I agree with you that we need to be more intentional with how we use either of these methodologies. – Tim Buividas, CEO, Corporate Learning Institute, Chicago, USA.

Arnold replies: Very simple. Reg Revans’s Action Learning – alongside the other conventional learning tools – takes place between individuals who are RESIDENT members of an organization. In today’s flexible labor market, the individuals are typically short tenure, so the experience they apply belongs to their truncated time with their current employer and the remembered experiences of their previous employers. What’s missing is their current employer’s PRIOR experience, which arguably – because it is already tried and tested in it own unique environment – is the more important component within the decision making process.

Genuine experiential learning is that which has the wider evidential base. By accommodating this aspect of the new-style workplace (actually it is hardly new; it has been actively pursued for almost 40 years now), it addresses directly the widespread discontinuity in the workplace, the fact that most institutional progress happens incrementally and organically, and the phenomenon of corporate amnesia, which I’ve argued is the single biggest encumbrance to decision making excellence.

For proper experiential learning to take place effectively, short-, medium- and long-term experience has to be captured before it walks out of the front door. Succeeding generation of individuals then have to know how to apply their present employers’ experience, others’ experience and their own personal experiences in the cause of their current employers’ interests. I have elected to choose David Kolb’s acknowledged reflective methodology to do this, adapted to the modern workplace with a distinctive “lessons learned” approach to decision making that can be passed along the short-lived generations of employees. The reason for Kolb is that his approach is experiential learning’s most refined methodology.

What practical steps should an organbisation actually take to plan for the next generation of managers or leaders? – William Chadwick, Head of QED Training, Manchester, U.K.

Arnold replies: One practical step that almost every employer neglects is to ensure that the incumbent leaves behind him/her a comprehensive account of their experience so that the incoming replacement can get up to speed quickly and efficiently.

The most cost-effective way of doing this is through skilled oral debriefings, whether done at regular intervals during their tenure, after important events or projects, or at the end of their tenure. Importantly, the oral debriefings are best undertaken with a skilled debriefer rather than leaving it to the individuals to do themselves, the objective being to extract both explicit and tacit knowledge for a successor to ‘apply’ rather than duplicate. It’s called experiential learning, designed to do away with (as much as possible) workplace discontinuity and ensure that hard-won and expensively paid for knowledge and experience can be re-used. It is a good way to avoid repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons.

Modern business instruction has long needed to shift more towards applying an institution-specific competence based on the application of actual knowledge and experience. What, in your view, can incumbent business leaders do about this? What are they already doing that you know of? – Elijah Lim, Principal Consultant at Elijah Consulting Pte Ltd., Singapore.

Arnold replies: An important question. The short answer is not much. Both industry/commerce and business education have first to recognize the problem. Not many do yet, mainly because they don’t acknowledge the value of their own knowledge and experience.

This would seem to be a contradiction because they will automatically better remunerate those with better knowledge and experience (others’ knowledge and experience) but strangely not appreciate that same knowledge and experience when it is their own, made more valuable because it has been tempered to the employer’s unique circumstances.

What puzzles me even further is that they don’t realize that, if captured, their hard-won knowledge and experience can be reapplied – without having to put anyone back on the payroll.

What to do about it? I suppose we keep on pointing it out.

Is decision coaching emerging as a new profession? Stephen Barrager, Publisher, Baker Street Publishing, San Francisco, USA.

Arnold replies: I’m afraid so. It would appear that they are much needed. I know that my next comment is going to go down like a lead balloon but the inevitable observation is this makes business education (widely available now for more than 50 years) open to big time criticism if our managers have to depend on others to help make their decisions.

In another guise, decision coaches are already with us, also big time. Central government in the UK, for example, uses management consultants and other “advisers” to help its managers push through public sector reforms. According to the record, the cost of proxying its own managerial skills is a staggering £1.75 billion a year. This excludes the money that local councils, National Health Trusts and other public bodies spend on consultants outside Whitehall.

Business education needs to take a close look at itself. Or maybe it should be the decision coaches, management consultants and advisers that they’ve made necessary. In theory, managers should not need others to take over their role. It’s why they’re paid the bigger bucks.

In-house mentors are another form of the decision coach but somehow they seem to be a more complementary aid given our flexible labor market and its short-tenure incumbents’ unfamiliarity with corporate culture and tried-and-tested experience.

Africa’s food policy needs sharper teeth – Agnes Gitau, Head of Communication Europe and North America at East Africa Economic Chambers of Commerce, London, UK.

Arnold replies: Africa’s food policy could be a lot sharper if it took a closer look at how every other developed country emerged from their feudal pasts. The same observation could be leveled at the international ‘aid industry’, which has been an equally poor experiential learner.

The non-learning aspect relates to how others have based their development on the employment of individual property rights in the agricultural sector. By ignoring this essential lesson, even neglecting to insist on recipient countries adopting less medieval attitudes toward land in return for their financial help, sheds full of money has been wasted and one of the world’s most long-running tragedies has been allowed to persist.

The policy to which today’s Africa aspires is commonly known as leasehold. The policy to which the developing world has adopted is freehold, which allows individuals ownership of the land, providing a tradable medium through which small-scale subsistence farming could be transformed into more commercial operations capable of feeding urban populations.

Whilst the move away from the traditional mind set that land is communal would be a sea change way of thinking, it would be no more exceptional than dozens of other, equally different cultures. The one successful modern non-African example quoted is Peru in the early 1990s but comparable proposals drafted for Tanzania and South Africa have been resisted, in spite of being backed by the World Bank, revealing how political dogma and political correctness can supplant the wisdom that can emanate from tried-and-tested precedent. I am sure that tomorrow’s historians will have something to say on yesterday’s experiential non-learners.

How can we tap into informal knowledge flows? 80% of critical knowledge is often transferred by informal means. KM´s challenge is to integrate the informal knowledge stream into business actions – Jose Carlos Tenorio Favero, Head of Knowledge Management, GMI S.A Ingenieros Consultores (GMI S.A), Peru.

Arnold replies: I presume that the critical knowledge to which you are referring is the tacit component of an organization’s intellectual capital. This is a subject I’ve been working on to address the unintended consequence of the very flexible labor market that, no thanks to today’s short-tenure workplace, has given employers chronic corporate amnesia and a never-ending recital of repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels, and other unlearned lessons.

How do you think one can incorporate KM in Project Management? – Karthikeyan Palanisamy, Business Manager, Next Gen Web Services (p) Limited, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India.

Arnold replies: This is exactly the role of experiential learning (EL). KM should provide the evidential base. EL is the overriding methodology to transform the tried-and-tested practice into better decision making.

Why we read autobiographies of different people? How much do we learn from them? – Suhaib Hamid, Article Writer at Kun Institute of Pure and Applied Sciences, Pakistan.

Arnold replies: All the above are accurate observations that disguise a wider application. If autobiographies – and arguably even biographies – are inspirational, then the model, done in different ways, can be equally motivating for whole companies, even generations of students.

What I’m referring to is full blown corporate history and, in an even wider format, business history, all commonly overlooked as educational tools. Imagine how an educator could prime a student wanting to go into the engineering industry by putting, say, three histories of engineering companies on their reading list? Or the engineering company itself giving an updated history of itself to the rolling generations of transitory employees who need to be inducted quickly? And, even more powerfully, how an employer’s more recent institution-specific history – what I call their organizational memory (OM), the evidential base of all the above-mentioned histories – could be reapplied to improve day-to-day decision making?

The use – its application, not its repetition – of autobiographical, biographical and corporate examples of history/OM is no less than the foundational discipline a.k.a. experiential learning, which is much neglected in industry and commerce. In business education’s case, business history, the more wide-ranging historical study of the subject that builds a general appreciation of the contribution of single enterprises into the wider context – is also widely overlooked. To my knowledge Harvard is the only university where the subject is compulsory for all first year students. Without historical awareness, corporate amnesia prevails and the practiced example of how others have turned $£€/etc into more $£€/etc has to be constantly re-invented. Strange when other professions such as architecture, art, politics, medicine, music, soldiering, etc, all use their history in their curricula …..

Whichever format, history provides experience cheaply. Documented well, it is a way of allowing employers to utilize their hard-won and expensively acquired intellectual capital AFTER the author has left the premises. A no-brainer if there ever was one! Yet we avoid it like the plague. Why?

It has been said that knowledge is power… Brett Hilder, Chief Executive Officer, Argos Consulting, Perth, Australia.

Arnold replies: What can be said is that there is an intimate relationship between knowledge and power. This can be easily demonstrated in the workplace, where those with the most knowledge, often interpreted as having experience, are given the most responsibility. With responsibility frequently comes the authority to direct and control, which is where “power” resides. It happens to be the case that those with most responsibility – otherwise the most powerful – are paid more.

On this subject there is something fundamental happening that is changing the whole dynamic of power in our society. Few have noticed it – with serious implications for the way we earn our living and accumulate our composite wealth. The change relates to our employers, which – in terms of the power balance – have traditionally held the whip hand.

Mundane it might seem but this is moving because of an unintended consequences of the flexible labor market, which was introduced around 40 years ago to allow businesses to accommodate the rapidly changing circumstances of the market place. What it did was give to us short-tenure jobs, and for the employing organization extensive memory loss of its own unique practice.

In the past individuals WERE the institution. Now, with tenures averaging around five years in many developed economies, the organization is at the mercy of new brooms. Change is involuntary. Ordered evolution has become a shapeless revolution with little regard for the one corporate asset that represents the organization’s life form—its institution-specific knowledge and experience. It presages a mercurial world, with such things as corporate culture, ethos, values, and tried-and-tested usage struggling to maintain an even keel. Who else recognizes this?

Having chosen to operate in isolation to its own hard-won and expensively acquired experience, the motor of much of western society’s wealth machine has largely disempowered itself. Its power has been displaced. Some will cheer but when unanticipated and unaddressed, not so good. …..

Agriculture ‘still the best bet’ in cutting African poverty levels – Dr. B. A. Usman, CEO & Founder of Sril Group of Companies, Nigeria, and Permanent Secretary, Office of Head of Service, Governor’s Office Borno State.

Arnold replies: With the vast majority of the population engaged in agriculture, it’s no surprise that the International Food Policy Research Institute’s report concludes that agriculture is the best way to pull Africa out of poverty.

But the real flaw in this report – or perhaps its oversight – turns on the acknowledgement that most of the stated 61% of the population are subsistence farmers. They are subsistence farmers for no other reason than Africa’s insistence on retaining a land ownership policy that generally prevents larger scale production.

It is a policy that snubs the lesson that every other developed has used to emerge from their feudal pasts. It is also encouraged by the international ‘aid industry’, which has chosen to ignore the opportunity to base their philanthropy on the practiced example of others.

In agriculture, the policy to which today’s Africa stubbornly retains is commonly known as leasehold. The policy to which the developed world has adopted is freehold, which allows individuals ownership of the land. The latter would allow small-scale subsistence farming to be transformed into more commercial operations capable of feeding urban populations.

Subsistence plots could be bought, sold, and consolidated into more commercial operations capable of feeding urban populations. Then, with the means acquired, jobs could be generated. Importantly, the cycle is self-generating and wealth is not dependent on the favor—usually family- or tribe-directed—of whoever is top dog. Importantly, it would help to exchange the traditional measure of African wealth—livestock, wives, and children—for a more tradable form of personal wealth that could be used as surety for borrowing and allow individuals to create an investment economy.

Instructively, a similar schema was formulated by the economist Hernando de Soto and successfully introduced into Peru in the early 1990s but comparable proposals drafted for Tanzania and South Africa have been resisted, in spite of being backed by the World Bank.

For Africa, the move away from their traditional mindset would be a sea change way of thinking but no more exceptional than dozens of other, equally different cultures. Whatever, the unwillingness to change has allowed one of the world’s longest running tragedies to persist.

Africa’s land ownership issue is one of the biggest examples of experiential non-learning that peppers both under-developed and advanced economies in different ways.

Instead of dismissing freehold as “not African,” the usual unconvincing response, Africa needs to adapt the tried-and-tested model. Otherwise progress will continue slow. Slow is already 50 years old. More slow unnecessarily extends Africa’s potential as the next regional economic power house.

What’s your view on capturing tacit knowledge? Josh Liu, CEO/Co-founder of Acrossio, London, U.K.

Arnold replies: It needn’t be too difficult.

It first needs an understanding of what is tacit knowledge. Broadly speaking and unlike explicit knowledge, which is the ‘what’ of know-how, tacit knowledge is the non-technical ‘how’ of know-how. It is the part of intellectual capital that is implicit, ambiguous, esoteric and deeply rooted in action as well as ideals, values, and emotions. Importantly, it is acquired largely by experience that is functional and, in its most instructive forms, context-, co-worker- and institution-specific. in truth, it is the raw material through which old knowledge can be transformed into new knowledge with the added value element variously called hindsight, insight, 20:20 vision, good judgment, enlightenment, having the quality of being sensible, and – the holy grail – wisdom.

I’ve found that the most effective way of capturing it is through Oral Debriefing, mainly because the spoken word is a more efficient way of conveying the complex nature of elements like the nuances of corporate culture, management style, and the often-obscure issues surrounding decision making within groups. Once documented, it can be passed down the transiting generations of employees.

The most effective debriefings use skillful interviewers, because, as a rule, individuals find it difficult to debrief themselves. The interviewer needs to be a good listener, for a large part of the debriefing is in the asking of supplementary questions when the interviewee’s responses are unclear, imprecise, or evasive. Also, a well-prepared questioner will be aware of gaps and inconsistencies in the available source materials and will ask questions to clarify or, in some instances, confirm the record. Such responses might shed new light on an issue or serve as yardsticks to judge the accuracy of other information provided by the interviewee. It is here that most tacit knowledge resides.

There are all sorts of issues around planning, frequency and subject matter, all providing different types of tacit knowledge. For the latter, for example, interviews can be structured around Biographical Debriefing, which focuses on an individual’s life or career. Then there is the Subject Debriefing, which concentrates on obtaining knowledge about a single event. The Critical Incident Debriefing occurs when there is an unexpected event, usually something damaging. And finally, there is the Exit Debriefing, commonly known as the exit interview.

In the right hands, the oral debrief is a powerful capture tool. Of course, capturing the knowledge is just the next stage of the process of the KM objective, which is to apply the knowledge in the cause of better decision making. This is where the process known as experiential learning comes in – knowing how to turn the evidence into a better decision.

“Almost everyone learns from experience. If they don’t they are pretty dumb. This is why the idea of Best Practice Transfer has so much merit. Too often people and organizations say “Oh, that wouldn’t work here’ or “Our situation is different. That doesn’t apply here. The truth is that, if one distils down the essence of most best practices, they can be applied universally.”- David Hamilton, Founder, Chairman, The America’s Future Series, Dallas/Fort Worth, USA.

Arnold replies: What you’ve said applies to individuals, to employees.

What I’m suggesting is that the view from the employers’ side of the fence is very different. No thanks to the very flexible labor market (average employee tenure = just over four years in the UK, in the US even less) the level of its OWN (i.e. retained) knowledge, crafted to its own special circumstances, is typically minimal, and replaced by the imported experience of others, whose practice is un-crafted to the different circumstances of their new employer.

However good the experience is of others, the imported practice still has to be accommodated to the new employer, in exactly the same way as a resident employee has to apply the employer’s tried-and-tested practice to constantly changing circumstances. But without an intimate awareness of the new employers’ acquired knowledge and experience, the learning curve is necessarily steeper, longer and hugely more expensive than it would be otherwise. And then the incumbent’s face changes again and the cycle of discontinuity, corporate amnesia and experiential NON-learning rolls on.

Yes, the individual walks out of the front door with enhanced experience but the EMPLOYER is constantly being caught short, having to re-invent its own special wheel. If it doesn’t, it runs the risk of losing its USP.

“All of which you say is true – but the reason intellectual and experiential paralysis persists is because even with a turnover of staff supposedly providing new blood, the chances of the upper echelon making use of any innovative potential is zero. ‘Not fit for purpose’ underscores the fact that like many corporate hierarchies there is a barrier to re-organising and correcting ‘what is wrong’ because it constitutes a risk to those already in control and enjoying the perquisites of the status quo. There is an inherent executive opposition to making improvements which can be envisioned as ‘disruptive’ and very plausible reasons can be advanced for doing nothing regardless of criticisms of inefficiency, wasted talent and failure to function. The only way for any vitality to be injected into these staid, dinosaur like operations is to clear out the sources of all specious objections to change and start again. Will it happen? Doubtful!” – Barrie Blake-Coleman, Principal Associate, Merryfield Associates, Barford St Martin, Wiltshire, UK. 

Arnold replies: If we dumped all the doubters, I would imagine there wouldn’t be many senior decision-makers left. I’ve just replied to another responder on another group who was similarly pessimistic of such change, and specifically of managers acknowledging and addressing the destructive downside of knowledge loss/corporate amnesia. I agree, the attitude is endemic, two of the reasons being that those decision-makers are themselves part of the flexible labor market and they see their acquired knowledge and experience with their employer as proprietorially their own. In truth employers, who pay for it and provide the circumstances, have joint ownership, so should be able to allow successive generations to inherit and apply ……

I like to describe the alert as akin to kicking a dinosaur’s tail, the dinosaur being the rigidly huge education system that we’ve created to badly service a commerce/industry sector desperately trying to live with the conveyer-belt issues surrounding flexible working. Like the dinosaur it takes a goodly time to feel anything. And when this eventually happens, the asteroid has already struck. The dinosaur’s momentum might propel it forward but the collateral damage to its environment – i.e. productivity – is huge.

To mix some other metaphors, the transfusion of new blood to the workforce is beneficial …. but usually only if the institution’s DNA – its unique knowledge and experience – is part of the blood mix. And constant stop-start does nothing for petrol/gas consumption.

Forgive the cynicism, but there’s definitely something wrong with our system when we become addicted to the constant ‘We must learn the lessons’ of experiential NON-learning. To the employer who can’t do experiential learning, I like to quote the dialogue in one of English novelist J. L. Carr’s texts, “You have not had thirty years’ experience. You have had one year’s experience 30 times.”

 “What can you do to overcome the rapidly accelerating loss of institutional knowledge?” – Ron Ashkenas, managing partner, Schatter Consulting, San Francisco, USA. 

 Arnold replies: Concern about the repetitive instinct of knowing old ways underlines one of the misconceptions of preserving corporate knowledge and experience. The capture of “organizational memory” is just one stage of the process to improve decision making. Thereafter, institutions – and the individuals employed by them – have to know how to APPLY that evidence to
their employers’ new circumstances.

This is a separate skill known as experiential learning, self evidently the ability to learn from actual experience that most aficionados think should be the job of a historian. While the historians’ role illustrates the work involved, it is hardly practical at the coalface of business. It truth it should be the responsibility of the decision maker him/herself.

It’s a discipline that gets added importance because of the short-tenure character of our flexible labor market. Here-today, gone-tomorrow employees might well be given access to their new employers’ unique practice, environment and circumstances but without the ability to transform old knowledge into new knowledge, all that typically happens is that decision makers use the knowledge and experience of their PRIOR employers to make their determinations. Not the best way of doing things as most progress occurs organically and sequentially.

The continual overlay of others’ knowledge experience over 40 years – the length of time we’ve been doing flexible working – has not improved our productivity growth; rather, the employers’ distinctive knowledge base gets progressively diluted to homeopathic levels, destroying distinctive physiognomies in favor of other cultures and other operational practices, all unfamiliar and needing constant orientation. The result? An endlessly disrupted learning curve to recover the organizations’ USP behind an acquired corporate amalgam of others’ practice. What was intended has, instead, given establishments Alzheimer-like corporate amnesia and successive generations of experiential NON-learners, with the evidence showing up in the pandemic of repeated mistakes, reinvented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter commerce and industry.

 Good knowledge preservation has to be linked to good experiential learning.

ON SERVING DIFFERENT EMPLOYERS

Arnold says: The assumption that new employers hire people with similar experiences may look the case but the reality is that every employer is different, requiring different decision making because of differing circumstances and environments. Other employers may well have memories of mistakes made and lessons learned, but one employer’s solution is not generally the answer to another’s.

In a genuine learning environment, what’s required is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution but an intimate awareness of the new employers’ experience applied to the new decision-maker’s prior experience. In the flexible labor market, the employer has typically allowed its know-how to go AWOL while the new appointee has to cope with his/her own inherent short-, selective- and defensive memory. This less than rigorous combination makes for less than rigorous decisions.

This observation is borne out by the work of Groysberg, Nanda, and Nohria into staff poaching, which represents a large proportion of executive and vocational churn in the labor market. When it comes to knowledge transferability between jobs/employers, they found that the performance of high flyers fell sharply and stayed well below old achievement levels thereafter. A total of 46% performed poorly in the year after they left one company for another. After they switched loyalties, their performance plummeted by an average of about 20% and did not climb back to the old levels even after five years.

One explanation is that the new company doesn’t have the same support services but on its own, it suggests that the traditional decision making process is also imperfect. I go with the corporate amnesia excuse and/or decision making without experiential learning proper.

ON ENGAGEMENT SURVEYS

Arnold says: Most of the engagement surveys I’ve come across have a number of flaws. In the first place they depend on employees – including managers – answering a set of simple questions themselves and typically little is given away. They – the questions – are classically a variation of the old-style exit interviews – and generally useless.

Gallup’s verdict that they can “trump many other turnover issues” is puzzling. Depends of what turnover issues they’re trying to solve I suppose but in the context of trying to deter staff turnover, I would suggest that the impact would be minimal. Employee churn is now a fact of life.

Much depends on the quality of the questions and I haven’t yet seen anything beyond bland. Bland questions generate bland answers. The only way of getting past a written questionnaire is to conduct face-to-face interviews, where answers are challenged, followed up and challenged again.

As you can guess, I’m underwhelmed. I await a deluge of defensive criticism from the engagement industry ……

ON EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING IN A FLEXIBLE LABOR MARKET

Arnold says: May I add my two-pennies worth. The discussion so far has cited dozens of explanations, many of which are personal observations and others those of well-known published authors. However valid. the point I wish to make is that the phenomenon of rise and fall continues unabated as if experience doesn’t count. On this basis, we don’t seem to be very good experiential learners.

It is in this context that my posting is framed. How do we become better experiential learners when the valuable institutional-specific experience we create – the unique, tried-and-tested and already paid-for experience – keeps on dissipating through the actively pursued flexible labor market? When the common denominator of short tenure is corporate amnesia … and where the evidential base of decision-makers becomes someone else’s experience? 

You ask what’s an employer to do? One typical answer is to hold on to employees but that ship sailed around 40 years ago, leaving an unintended consequence that few acknowledge and/or address. I was hoping that the discussion might have revolved around my posting that attempts to outline the extent of the problem – and a solution.

In short, employers need to capture their valuable knowledge before (a) it is forgotten or (2) it walks out of the front door. I’m talking about the more valuable tacit knowledge rather than only the explicit that resides in our huge databanks. With this in hand, the rolling generations of decision-makers need to apply their employers’ prior practice alongside their own previous experience. And for this to happen business educators need to teach the absent skill – it’s called experiential learning, the methodology refined by the likes of David Kolb, who is undoubtedly the discipline’s most prominent modern proponent. As it stands, EL educators – of which there are few – are mainly using EL methodology on contrived experience. Decision makers deserve the real thing when they get round to making their determinations in the real world.

ON REDUCING STAFF TURNOVER

Arnold says: The Deloitte Consulting organization document outlines one of the better approaches to minimising staff churn. But it should be noted that in the US, also in the UK and probably elsewhere, not many organizations are having much success at reducing their staff turnover. Among ALL the Fortune 500 companies, for example, the median level of tenure is now just three years and eight months (Payscale, Seattle, July 2013, I can let you have the detail if you want it). That’s across the board – all grades, including managers, confirming that, at best, whatever measures these supposedly enlightened companies employ to moderate their employee traffic through their swing doors is marginal.  

Flexible working in today’s workplace is, I’m afraid, not much negotiable. That train has left the station. On this basis, I constructively suggest a complementary strategy that more directly addresses the discontinuity of short tenure and corporate amnesia through knowledge capture and experiential learning.

ON INTERPRETING DATA – BADLY

Arnold says: Your observation that managers can have all the data in front of them and they are still unable to put the dots together is right; it is like they lack the conceptual ability to see it.

My explanation for this is that our business education doesn’t teach proper experiential learning a la David Kolb or any of the other aficionados. EL has come to education – and commerce/industry – rather late in the day and even when it is acknowledged and “taught”, the experience component of the exercise is usually something contrived.

Behind this, good decision-making – the ultimate purpose of knowledge management – is typically taught as a one-size-fits-all approach, whereas the basis of knowledge and so-called ‘wisdom’ is characteristically institution-specific, needing to be adapted to new and different circumstances. What is needed is the instruction how to – in your words – put the dots together. And before that happens, employers have to provide their managers with the detail of their past experiences. Enter proper KM. Otherwise, all that’ll happen in this flexible labor market is that a lot of managers will be using only the remembered evidence of other employers. Recognise the syndrome?

ON IGNORING HOW PEOPLE LEARN

Arnold says: I empathize with the fact that designers of KM systems largely ignore the way people best learn. Crazy!

As we all know, knowledge is very difficult for decision makers – or anyone else for that matter – to relate on their own. Many individuals can’t even differentiate between the explicit and the tacit, while the designers of IT structures often confuse knowledge, whose basis is invariably institution-specific, with skills, which are generic. Wisdom, which takes knowledge to the next level of savvy, is also widely misunderstood. Then, commerce and industry don’t fully appreciate that its knowledge is largely institute specific. Once again, crazy, especially at a time when staff replacement is as high as it is. No wonder mistakes get repeated, wheels have to be reinvented and lessons go unlearned.

As you convey, storytelling is one excellent way of navigating this minefield. Alongside the usual explicit resource and using storytelling as the underlying evidence base to make knowledge organization-specific and contextual, the inclusion of Kolb-style experiential learning completes the cycle to make KM more effective. 

You may be interested in our own approach, which mirrors your methodology to ALSO accommodate the discontinuity of the flexible labor market, arguably the biggest cause of knowledge loss, corporate amnesia and experiential non–learning. It also addresses how storytelling can be improved through expert oral debriefing. Like yours, it marries storytelling (I call the output organizational memory) with what you call adult learning (ipso facto experiential learning) to more effectively achieve the whole purpose of KM.

ON REPEATING MISTAKES

Arnold says: I like the description of KM – “…. blend and merge young fast legs with old slow wisdom.”

On the assumption that KM is implemented properly, may I comment on the observation that “old historical mistakes can be replicated”. Yes, this happens, more often than it should, but if it’s done well, KM is not supposed to replicate the past. It should all be about APPLYING the past (whether successful or unsuccessful) to new situations and circumstances. That’s the reason a good million percent of decision makers crop up with the concept.

The past provides the evidence. The new decision is arrived at through experiential learning (EL), a formalized discipline that takes account of this evidence (and in the case of new blood, their external experience). It’s not usually taught and, as a result, reduces the skill of much decision making to little more than intuition, untested judgment, political expediency, subjective thinking, experimentation, and delay. Put differently, it becomes guesswork coupled with the ability to play the game of corporate politics well.

WHEN KNOWLEDGE BECOMES INNOVATIVE

Arnold says: Yes, I am referring to past experience, which INCLUDES what you call ‘discoveries’ and ‘found things’. I’m not sure, but what I think you’re referring to is what I call innovative knowledge, which leapfrogs traditional learning. In truth, it is largely dependent on historical precedent – i.e. it’s incremental and builds on the past – but there is also innovative learning that is created accidentally (e.g. penicillin) and learning that is visionary (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci). These types of learning are a miniscule part of the overall evidential base. There is no reason why it should not be part of a post-activity brain dump.

Innovative knowledge is the labor of genius, such as the work of Leonardo de Vinci who, in the late 15th century, conceptualized cutting-edge ideas like the airplane, the parachute, cranes, submarines, tanks, water pumps, canals, and drills. Innovative knowledge encompasses the type of learning that leapfrogs the other types, and—in da Vinci’s case—was so advanced that it had to wait hundreds of years for incremental learning to catch up.

For the purposes of good decision making, new knowledge—what some academics call knowledge in action8—is created between the interaction of experience, explicit knowledge, and tacit knowledge, either incrementally (one experience on top of another), accidentally, or through innovation. The former is the usual way knowledge is created, incremental and accidental being atypical and rare, although innovative can always work in conjunction with incremental.

ON SHARING KNOWLEDGE, INCENTIVES AND MANAGING COLLABORATION

Arnold says: The fact that these issues are being raised suggests that the whole concept of KM still isn’t past first base. The topics are crucial – and need organizations to lead the way that, somehow, employees have to follow. Otherwise, I fear, KM will just trudge along as a “nice to have” rather than a “must have” with its huge benefits if done well.  

So first, managing collaboration, which raises the question where ownership of corporate knowledge resides. At present there is a belief that individual employees own it. However, there is a cogent argument – mine – that says it is jointly owned by the employee and the employer for reasons that it is the employer that is paying for it and also supplying the circumstances, the environment and the backup facilities to make things happen. As such, the employee belief system has to change.

Whilst voluntary collaboration is preferable, there are things that management can do. If employees are adamantly resistant, employers can write collaboration into their employment agreements, when employees are at their most agreeable. The organization can offer incentives (they can come in all shapes and sizes) but it is in the management approach to sharing where most success will come. In our experience, if it is explained that the company wants to learn from the experience, so that others will benefit, the response is usually positive, even flattering. Another strategy would be to do the “capture” effort at regular times (say once a year) or immediately after important events that would yield worthwhile knowledge and experience.

There is another important aspect to consider – how to do the “capture”. We’ve found that getting the individual to do it themselves is almost always less than productive, mainly because of their short, selective and defensive memories coupled with poor writing skills; also, because few understand and can articulate the tacit element of disclosure. The process we’ve developed is oral debriefing by a skilled interviewer, either one trained up by the company or someone outsourced. The trick is to do it non-aggressively and with learning in mind.

There are a whole range of other issues. Suffice to say that institute-specific knowledge and experience is irreplaceable for efficient learning, which is usually the missing element of the KM process. Individuals – usually new bloods taking advantage of our flexible labor market – need to know how to apply their own knowledge and experience with their employers’ knowledge and experience. At present this latter constituent of a decision-making process is typically absent, having walked out of the front door in the head of the previous incumbent. Proper experiential learning is a defined discipline that should also be part of the KM offer by employers to their employees.

ON ENTRENCHED CULTURES

Arnold says: With your statement that “…. when a culture is entrenched in its traditional views and does not want to change, it will rely on even the most superficial objection to resist movement,” you’ve moved into an area of psychology in which I’m unqualified

But I think you might have a point. It’s a feature I’ve seen time and time again, especially when an idea moves into new territory. To take your observation elsewhere, my explanation is that the issue is often overridden by dogma that, initself, is characterized by stubbornness. This, in turn, is a by-product of self-verification to which, of course, few want to challenge because it threatens the convention you cite. In my language, it displays all the signs of experiential NON-learning. In these circumstances, silence becomes deafening, denial becomes evident and action becomes apathy.

In the case of the flexible labor market, the belief of its infallibility is well entrenched. Most of the effort in addressing its UNacknowledged downside (it is usually seen as little more than internal disruption) is to try and reduce staff churn but the statistics record that it is as flexible as ever. In fact. the median rate of job tenure for ALL Fortune 500 companies is currently at an all time low – just 3 years and 8 months. That’s across the board – all grades, including managers. And although there’s no research that I’ve found to support a strong link between high staff turnover and low corporate output, I find that the progressive slippage of productivity growth among OECD countries over at least 40 years (the approximate period of the onset of flexible working) speaks volumes. In the absence of hard evidence, I suspect that this stated leap of faith on my part might fall into one of your counter point examples.

In my defence, I would submit that my efforts to put numbers on the problem would bolster my case but I take your point that it could be self-defeating in a defensive environment. I will admit that this has been a deliberate strategy on my part. My argument to myself has been that without any effort to determine cost (or in fact to be evenhanded in its discussion), the thesis would fall of its own accord.

If you’re right and I’m right, what’s the answer??????

I’m going to punt again with one of the lessons that I take from history …. that only when the issue becomes so bad – i.e. when the corporate back is literally against the wall – will change happen. Defensiveness will become proactive. A lot of muddied water will have passed under the business balance sheet but human nature WILL navigate the rapids. It will be at huge expense while the more perceptive and better learners will, by then, have inherited, another example of what goes up will come down. Forgive the mixed metaphors – and cynicism ….

ON RESISTANCE, SPECIFICALLY YOUNGSTER REBELLION AS A RITE OF PASSAGE TO ADULTHOOD

Arnold says: From my reading into the subject, it’s certainly psychological and cultural. But more specifically it’s Anglo Saxon and Western. We have a differing perception towards knowledge, believing that it is mostly technological and/or quantitative in orientation.

Western rationalism is based on the theory that knowledge comes through deductive reasoning while Eastern empiricism reasons that erudition is derived inductively through actual experience. As experiential learning specialists Professors Nonaka and Hirotaka Tekeuchi confirm, managers in Western economies generally focus on technically-orientated, mainly explicit information encompassing rules, processes and the professional/vocational information codified in manuals and texts, while the emphasis in, for example, Japanese companies, is on the more implicit and ambiguous tacit knowledge, a characteristic that is deeply rooted in action as well as ideals, values and emotions. It’s part of their Zen Buddist heritage.

In the world of decision-making, the difference – in exactly the same way as many managers mistake information management for knowledge management – is as subtle as it is important. An essential part of the evolutionary process of applying prior experience to new circumstances (in Nonaka and Tekeuchi’s words “turning old knowledge into new knowledge”), tacit’s importance is barely acknowledged by Western managers. Few will even know how to define it, let alone show any concern when it walks out of the front door.

The other unhelpful characteristic of many Western managers is that we are not especially reflective in our business lives, which also inevitably affects the quality of our decision-making. And for this, the teaching establishment and industry themselves are culpable against a background of contemporary Western thinking that society’s problems are best solved through technology and psychology-orientated procedures. The resulting shift in educational emphasis is that there are fewer arts/history graduates among senior business leaders than there were 50 years ago, with the not too unsurprising result that learning through historical precedent and association has been largely replaced with hi-tec approaches to management solutions.

Bottom line, our elders don’t respect the younger generation. And for this, the younger generation throws out the their elders’ knowledge and experience.

WORKPLACE CHURN AND EXPERIENTIAL NON-LEARNING

Arnold says: May I respectfully point out how the flexible labor market has made much the work into experiential learning (EL) redundant, at least for employers. As it is practiced today, EL is typically imperfectly defined and certainly under employed.  

To explain. Currently, such work as you describe – the volume of which is extremely low across the workforce – is carried out with resident employees, with the outputs typically relevant to snapshots of selective events, usually contemporary. It provides individuals with a useful familiarity of workplace practice and issues, and a soupçon of a decision-making methodology.

All fine and dandy in this confined context until flexible working moves them on. Essentially, dislocation in the UK averages eight different employers during a working lifetime, giving tenures of around five years (lower in the US, with a median of 3.68 years). This applies across the corporate hierarchy. While increased workplace familiarity gives individuals a broader exposure to different environments, the individual employer is left high and very dry with a very low corporate memory of itself. You may well point out that incoming individuals give employers broader industry-wide experiences, but given that most progress in organizations occurs organically – i.e. one experience on top of another – employers, then, have little or no remembered experience with which to learn efficiently. It’s all gone AWOL.

It is this issue – constant discontinuity, corporate amnesia and experiential NON-learning – that needs both institutional and academic attention. To properly learn from experience, employers need to capture their memory (this is a knowledge management (KM) function that is currently not fit for this purpose) and then employees need to know how better to learn from actual experience (this is the educational/training function, see Professor Kolb and others for their acknowledged and formalized methodology).

You may well ask me not to “slam” the academics and I would agree that corporations are equally culpable, but this is an issue that has been around since the early 1980s. For most forms of progress, actual institution-specific experience is arguably the best of evidential resource and, already, the constant discontinuity over so long a period has left individual institutional awareness of their own knowledge and experience at homeopathic levels.

In 1998, UK chancellor Gordon Brown, citing Mintel Research, was quoted at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool as follows: “As a result, employees already face the prospect of changing jobs not once in their working lives but on average eight times.” Since then employee churn has edged up and down, most recently up, no thanks to the recession.

ON FLEXIBLE WORKING

Arnold says: The level of employee change is astronomical. In the UK, the AVERAGE across industry (before the recession stuck) is between 4 and 5 years. In the US the median rate of job tenure for ALL Fortune 500 companies is just 3 years and 8 months. That’s across the board – all grades, including managers, making for a lot of staff turnover.

Good for individuals but not for employers. Consider ….

New blood does provide renewal etc but at this rate there is very little opportunity/time to either inject new ideas or learn from the new emplopyers’ previous experience if knowledge is not retained. A typical scenario is that it takes up to a year to induct a new appointee properly while the latter portion of tenure is also less than productive. Incidentally, new ideas STILL have to adapted to a new employers’ special circumstances and environment, the knowledge of which has walked out of the front door.

My view is that any anticipated adaptive capability of continuous new blood IS more than outweighed by total knowledge loss.

From my experience, the volume of knowledge loss is greater than most employers believe. Also that ‘critical’ is similarly an under-estimated description. Our experience is that most employee ranks contain large amounts of knowledge that is important to efficient production, primarily to themselves but also with useful application elsewhere in the company. In one of our projects, one of the most valuable individuals who had important knowledge to impart was the departing departmental secretary of a large pharmaceutical company.

My observations gets other support from research by three academics out of Harvard Business School investigating the phenomenon of corporate poaching, which represents a large proportion of executive and vocational churn. Contrary to popular belief, they found that when supposed ‘stars’ moved from their old employer, their performance invariably plunged. The reason was that most companies overlook the fact that executive performance is not entirely transferable because personal competencies inevitably include company-specific skills, which are left behind. It undermines the traditional belief of high-flyer infallibility.

Whatever, while I’m persuaded that flexible working DOES have some significant advantages, its seemingly unsighted weighty disadvantage can be offset by a better way to do KM.

ON WHY ORGANIZATIONS ARE BLIND

Arnold says: Isn’t it interesting how lax are most of the business organizations, including the CIPD (and business schools), at alerting their constituencies about the collective effects of high staff churn? And apart from trying to reduce their employee turnover, how strange is it that employers can’t see the related problem of corporate amnesia and poor decision making? The reason, I’m convinced, is that managers just don’t see it (or need to see it) because they are themselves part of the flexible labor market. Why should they worry if they’re not going to be around for very long? Have knowledge will travel and the unfortunate paymaster is left holding the baby!!

Maybe, just maybe, employers are beginning to realise that the hard-won knowledge they’ve acquired doesn’t only belong to walkabout individuals. If they realised they had part-ownership of that knowledge, they might think to invest in their own asset-rich bank that they’ve already paid for …..

ON BELIEVING THAT REPLACEMENTS WILL SUBSTITUTE

Arnold says: Our experience is that it is difficult enough to persuade businesses of the problem, most believing that the replacement’s knowledge and experience will adequately substitute.

When someone internally does recognize the problem and then puts in place a capture/EL program, we find that it all falls apart when that sponsoring individual leaves (as they do, like everyone else). The successor has to be re-persuaded and, usually, the non-invented-by-me syndrome kicks in and the old pattern continues.

As usual, we – the Anglo Saxons – mostly do things defensively, by which time knowledge and experience, in the immortal words of John Clees in his dead parrot sketch: “E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff ! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffl ed off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! This is an ex-parrot. ”

Forgive me. I do like illustrating outcomes graphically …. When it’s gone, it’s gone!! Given that it’s already paid for, having to re-invent knowledge and experience is just dumb.

By the way the 20% annual churn rate is not uncommon. Consider the current rate of turnover of top executives in the mining industry …..

ON BOOMER RETIREMENT = COMPANY KNOWLEDGE VOID

Arnold says: I should point out that these knowledge gaps – I name the phenomenon corporate amnesia – have been evident for more than 30 years, ever since the flexible labor market kicked in in the 1980s. In reality, the baby boomers have had, during this period, the same number of employers that everyone else has had (the average is eight in a working lifetime in many developed countries), meaning that the tenure levels of employees – including Baby Boomers – is typically short. Which, in turn, would suggest that the knowledge gaps when they leave are also small.

That’s not to suggest that small knowledge gaps are not important. Or that the sum total of knowledge/experience of Baby Boomers with other employers is also unimportant. My point is that, from the employers’ viewpoint, it’s not only the knowledge of Baby Boomers that is important. It probably only accounts for only a smidgeon of a current employers’ unique experience when they retire. There is also the constant exiting of every other employee – the average tenure is around four/five years, lower in the US, right across the corporate hierarchy) – to consider. In truth, the broader wastage of acquired knowledge and experience – all hard won and expensively paid for – is huge. As such companies need to address the Baby Boomer issue more broadly.

And, as we KM-ers know, there is an answer in the discipline we all champion. It’s still properly unexploited and sadly, the wider problem – corporate amnesia and experiential non-learning – is still largely unacknowledged. One of the reasons could be that employees are themselves such a big part of the flexible labor market. Why should they care or share? Knowledge belongs to them, exclusively, they believe, in spite of the fact that someone else has paid for it and also provided the environment and circumstances …..

 ON EXPERIENTIAL NON-LEARNING

Arnold says: There is one common trait of our modern decision-makers – their widespread inability to learn efficiently from experience, both from themselves or others. This observation goes further – that so many of our managers know too little about their OWN institutions’ experiences, the reason being that their employer does so little to capture the relevant and valuable knowledge and experiences of their walkabout employees, all of whom have, for the past 40 years, been participating in the very flexible labor market that marks out the company veteran as being someone with around four years tenure (less in the US).

On top of individual short, selective and defensive memories (all endemic in the individual character), the absence of institute-specific awareness – what I call corporate amnesia – disallows the institutional ability to efficiently learn, illustrated by the pandemic of repeated mistakes, re-invented wheels and other unlearned lessons that litter commerce and industry.

It is no coincidence that these deficiencies are compounded by our education systems’ curricula neglect of business and corporate history as well as the widespread absence of teaching experiential learning as a decision making tool.

For organizations, high jobs churn is a Knowledge Management (KM) thing that has to see document management taken to the next level. For business education, they’re overlooking the biggest lesson of all – that most learning/progress occurs organically and incrementally …. both predicated on the mistaken belief that our fast-changing business environment makes past management irrelevant. It is an idea that gives business development the dance equivalent of one step forward, one step back.

ON THE MIS-UNDERSTANDINGS OF KNOWLEDGE

Arnold says: Discussions around the nature of knowledge often seem to gravitate towards IT, which is the perceived business conduit for knowledge. Perhaps it is in the conventional IT approach that we can explain why this mainstay of learning is unappreciated.

IT treats knowledge as a commodity, which means it has to be itemized and categorized. In doing so, the point is missed. Unlike data and information knowledge can’t be easily identified in any explicit way. It is interpretative, predictive and deductive in character, allowing its owner to understand the implications of the former and act accordingly. Otherwise described as tacit, it is implicit, ambiguous, esoteric, functional and, in its most instructive forms, context-, co-worker- and institution-specific. It typically exists in the minds of individuals and is normally very difficult to capture.

It is instructive how knowledge is geographically perceived. In the West, we think that it is technically-orientated on deductive reasoning that is centered on rules, processes and the professional/vocational information codified in manuals and other texts. In the East, it is seen quite differently by being derived inductively through actual experience that is rooted in action as well as ideals, values, and emotions. Nonaka and Tekeuchi describe this perfectly in one of their books as a function of the East’s Zen Buddhist heritage. It comes out clearly in our irreverence of most things old (“never look back, only forward”) while an Eastern manager will instinctively have an ingrained respect for their heritage. As such, they value it, we don’t.

This difference in understanding is, I think, key to the conundrum of why we can’t seem to make IT work better. In the way we’re trying to document it, knowledge can’t be captured and, therefore, applied. This puts off managers – and their employers – from giving it any sort of value other than lip-service and a naïve expectation that the way to transmit it is informally. In today’s workplace, where employment is very flexible, informal is very inefficient, no thanks to short- selective and defensive memory.

In my experience the current IT approach is wrong. The tacit component of knowledge CAN be documented. To understand HOW, it is important to appreciate the cog components which, as KM-ers, you will be intimately aware of. There’s data at the bottom of the tree. When it becomes comparative, it becomes information. In turn, this becomes knowledge – and another, even more valuable element called wisdom – when it is interpreted and applied. From the practical viewpoint, the action of acquiring knowledge and especially wisdom is buried in the exploit known as ‘experience’.

Experience is much more easily captured than knowledge per se.

I usually break down experience into long-term, medium-term and short-terms organizational memory (OM). The former is valuable for strategy and the latter for operational issues. The best way of documenting long-term OM is through the medium of the classic corporate history, done less as hagiography and more as a serious, though readable, learning document. For medium and short-term OM, the most effective way of capturing this is through skillful oral debriefing. Done well – the operative word is well, using narrative discourse – both these approaches are powerful ways of transferring knowledge across the institution and down the generations.

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Posted February 22, 2013 by Knowledge Management

2 responses to “Q and A’s

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