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“If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as effective” was the famed statement of Lew Platt, CEO of Hewlett-Packard. That statement was the rallying cry of knowledge management initiatives that began in the 1990s. Early digital knowledge management platforms may have been overly complex Rube Goldberg machines that never had any prayer of working, but today’s tools are no laughing matter. Not only are they poised to enable companies to realize Platt’s goal, but to wildly exceed it. Yet, these benefits may only be available to managers who are bold and skilled enough to lead differently in a digital age.
“If only we knew what we once knew.”
When President George W. Bush announced a space initiative to launch a manned mission to Mars, a painful reality became quickly evident — NASA would first have to relearn how to conduct a manned mission to the moon. Put simply, the organization had forgotten some of the essential knowledge needed to conduct the mission. Plans had been lost, and essential personnel had since retired or moved on to other organizations.
Similarly, the oil company BP experienced a similar phenomenon as older employees with essential company knowledge began to retire. These “machine whisperers” had deep knowledge developed over decades-long careers about the maintenance of important and expensive equipment — knowledge that was rapidly escaping the organization as these employees left the company.
Digital tools have the potential to reshape the relationship between organizations and retiring employees in two ways. First, when used for collaboration, advanced social media platforms can record all interactions between employees and preserve them for later use. This “digital trace” can be used to preserve knowledge possessed by the employees as they perform their day-to-day work, making this knowledge available to others at a later time even after these employees have left the organization.
For example, the German chemical company BASF discovered that when teams used these social media platforms for collaboration, they experienced less disruption when employees left the team. The knowledge embedded in their previous interactions with team members allowed their replacements to get up to speed far more quickly than was possible otherwise.
Second, digital platforms introduce the possibility of redefining the relationship with retired employees.