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Retaining Knowledge

The soft knowledge of your most experienced staff members is a valuable asset that can be used for commercial advantage. Allowing these staff members to leave the laboratory without capturing this knowledge means an irrecoverable loss of valuable as

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Capturing and Protecting Departing Employees' Knowledge

“Knowledge loss resulting from employee turnover is becoming a critical issue that cannot be ignored,” according to a 2008 report in MIT Sloan Management Review.1 What can lab managers do to avoid losing valuable knowledge when key staff members announce their retirement or transfer out of R&D to other functions? This is occurring at many companies now in the wake of staff reductions, corporate acquisitions and mergers.

Laboratory reports focus on what was done and the results achieved, rather than how the work was done, which is important information that is lost when key staffers depart. Consultant Geoff Dolbear has used the term “lore” to describe this “soft” knowledge. Lore includes:

  • Key contacts whose important information and input are needed to achieve project goals
  • Other valuable information sources
  • Key insights important to project success
  • Key work habits and skills important in achieving project goals
  • An understanding of future work needed to finish incomplete projects, and how this work can best be done
  • How the company can improve workplace processes
  • Threats to continued success in the company’s lines of business

The solution to this problem is a systematic knowledge- retention program. Knowledge retention is being used increasingly by a growing number of firms. These include companies with large R&D operations such as Chevron, BP, Merck, LyondellBasell, SC Johnson & Son, Halliburton, and Dow Chemical.2 While such programs are being used to capture knowledge in a variety of business operations, the focus of this article will be on the use of knowledge retention in R&D

The most common approach for capturing lore is with interview-based discussions followed by preparation of a report, which is then stored in an accessible manner on the organization’s intranet. The stored information represents a useful knowledge asset for the company’s other employees and adds value when licensing technology, selling business units or taking part in a merger.

Need for knowledge retention

The need for knowledge retention is greater than ever. While the recession and the resulting decline in their 401(k) funds has led some older employees and baby boomers to delay their retirement, many others have been forced to retire earlier than expected because of laboratory staff reductions at many firms.3 These individuals are often laboratory managers and key senior members of technical staffs.

It is important to retain the knowledge of how they achieved their most important accomplishments, the status of their current projects, and how their successors can best carry on with a minimum loss of project momentum. Upon such departures, other key staff members are promoted or transferred and given new job responsibilities. These individuals seldom have much time to coach a successor in their former responsibilities.

Other occasions when knowledge-retention efforts are timely include during a project transfer from the lab bench to the pilot plant, or from the pilot plant to commercial production. In the case of drug companies, the transfer of drug development from the laboratory to Phase II or Phase III clinical trials can be a good time to initiate knowledge retention for that project.

Sometimes, large firms with R&D centers located around the world will transfer a project, but not personnel, from one facility to another that is thousands of miles away. Important information can also be lost when projects are terminated or technology is licensed to other organizations. Conducting knowledge-retention interviews and writing reports is best done before the staff members initially associated with the project move on to other work.

Lab staff members may become involved in knowledgeretention programs at facilities other than their own laboratories. For example, oil refinery turnarounds are major refurbishment projects critical to competitive performance in the mature oil-refining industry. To help achieve this competitive performance, BP has introduced processes and tools to capture and share turnaround experience across BP plants worldwide. In-depth interviews of engineers and others involved in the turnarounds capture lessons learned following completion of the projects.4 Reports enable these lessons to be shared with other refineries.

Laboratory managers and staff members vary in the type of key knowledge they hold. Some are technical knowledge experts in their fields. Some serve as informal internal consultants and mentors. It is often important to determine the identity of these individuals and their role in successful projects, because their names may not have appeared as authors of technical reports.

Report templates

It is usually best to develop a report template suited to the needs of a company’s laboratories. This is best done by a knowledge-retention professional working with laboratory managers. Sections of the template may be left blank when appropriate for specific reports. For example, a chemist or chemical engineer working in catalyst development may have little or no interaction with a firm’s catalyst customers, so the report section on customer service could be left blank.

On the other hand, the interactions a co-worker had with pilot plant personnel, manufacturing personnel, the company’s sales personnel and with customers may well have been critical to the successful introduction of a new product. Who were the key contacts at various customers? What were this individual’s key interactions with co-workers in other functions and with other personnel? What were the key processes or events that led to the initial sales to these customers? All this is worth recording for consideration and possible future use the next time a new catalyst is developed.

Interview-based discussions

While one could argue that the departing expert could sit down and write this report, interviews conducted by a skilled interviewer can elicit information that otherwise would not be retained. Relieving the departing expert of the responsibility for writing the report can save his or her expensive time for other activities. Besides the departing expert and the interviewer, participants in the discussion can include the departing expert’s supervisor, co-workers closely associated with his/her work, and successors assuming responsibility for the departing expert’s work. These individuals can also ask questions during the interview.

These interviews are much longer than traditional exit interviews. The interviews I’ve done have typically lasted four to 12 hours, conducted in two or more sessions. I have heard of some interviews taking 20 hours or more.

The interview is best conducted by an individual with a unique combination of skills, including meeting facilitation, interviewing and the writing prowess needed to prepare a readable report. Because these reports are stored online, search engine optimization [see sidebar] is important to ensure that desired reports appear high up in the list of “hits” when the computer files are searched. The interviewers also need a basic technical knowledge. This know-how is essential in understanding the responses of experts to their questions and being able to ask followup questions.

For example, at a chemical company research center, interviewers need a basic knowledge of chemistry in addition to journalistic skills. This basic knowledge gives the interviewer/writer the ability to prepare and quickly understand the basics of fields new to him or her. Sometimes knowledge beyond that of a college degree is essential, particularly in interdisciplinary fields. Industrial experience in these fields can be a tremendous aid in achieving the basic understanding needed to conduct interviews with experts, and to write reports that are worthwhile for others working in the field to read.

The person conducting the interview is both a trained facilitator and an experienced writer. Medium-sized and smaller firms seldom can afford to keep such a person on staff full time. A full-time staff member who has received the requisite training in interviewing and meeting facilitation could conduct the interviews and write reports as part of his or her job responsibilities. Alternatively, this could be a service outsourced as needed to technical writers. As noted, the person conducting the interviews should also be a trained meeting facilitator to keep the interview on track.

Making knowledge retention programs successful

Knowledge retention will languish if it is conducted in isolation. Lab managers should align knowledge-retention efforts with key company business and R&D initiatives. They should communicate the importance of knowledge retention to their staff members. Strong support and visible involvement by upper management is essential. Making knowledge-retention interviews and reports part of the completion of an R&D project can help institutionalize the process.

Lab managers should follow the KISS principle—“Keep it simple, stupid”—in designing management-retention programs. They should be sure to keep their interviews focused on important information. Report content should be limited to this information, so that the reports are easier to identify in searches and make for quicker reads.

Using qualified individuals as interviewers and report writers is essential. As noted, journalistic skills alone are insufficient. So, too, is R&D experience. A combination of these skills is essential.

For example, I was the fourth writer to work in knowledge retention for one of my clients. The first was a freelance writer with an undergraduate science degree. She soon found she was out of her depth and quit. The next two were R&D staff members with good technical knowledge and reportwriting skills. However, they did not have the interviewing and meeting facilitation skills needed. These three writers worked fewer than six months in the program.

Then I was hired, and have worked four years for this client. Despite this being a large research center with more than 1,000 employees, seldom was the workload heavy enough to require working more than 20 hours per week—another reason to outsource the work.

Skilled interviewers can conduct telephone interviews with employees at satellite research centers or production plants around the country, eliminating the need for business travel.

Program killers

Large-scale changes such as staff reductions, closure of R&D centers, divestments of businesses, and mergers and acquisitions can distract lab managers and staff members at a time when a number of key and highly experienced employees are departing and knowledge retention is most essential. Expecting key staff members to take the initiative to set up knowledge-retention programs for themselves is usually ineffective. Lab managers need to be vocal in their support of the program and rebalance staff members’ responsibilities to give them time for knowledgemanagement interviews.

Sometimes, information technology departments or human resources departments are assigned the responsibility to manage knowledgeretention initiatives. However, lab managers still need to play an active role. Choosing the key employees who should participate in knowledgeretention activities is essential. Neglecting this responsibility often means that interviews are not conducted on a timely basis or even at all.


The soft knowledge of your most experienced staff members is a valuable asset that can be used for commercial advantage. This knowledge was gained at considerable cost and over a lengthy period of time. Allowing these staff members to leave the laboratory without capturing this knowledge means an irrecoverable loss of valuable assets. Systematic implementation of knowledge-retention programs captures this knowledge for later use or sale.


  1. S. Parise, R. Cross and T.H. Davenport, “Strategies for Preventing a Knowledge-Loss Crisis,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 31-38 (Summer 2008).
  2. Knowledge Harvesting, Inc. http://www.knowledgeharvesting. com/Clients.html.
  3. D.W. DeLong, Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce, Oxford University Press (2004).
  4. M.T. Hansen and B. von Oetinger, “Introducing T-shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation,” Harvard Business Review Online (March-April 2001), introducing-t-shaped-managers/ar/1.

Search Engine Optimization

The term “search engine optimization” (SEO) is widely used but often misunderstood. It refers to controlling the rank of an item in a list of search-engine results. SEO involves being sure the title contains keywords and relevant information about the rest of the report.

For example, the title of a report could be “John Smith: Developing Ziegler-Natta Catalysts for Propylene Polymerization.” The key search terms are “John Smith,” “Ziegler-Natta catalysts,” and “propylene polymerization.” It is then helpful to include the technical terms in the report at least several times. Related terms in the report could also aid in search engine optimization. For the example in question, these terms could include polypropylene, stereochemistry and isotactic polypropylene, among other terms.

If the report-writing process includes an abstract, it is helpful to pack the abstract with as many important keywords as possible. Often, reports include a list of keywords as a separate section. Search engines are sometimes set to search just report titles and the keyword sections. These abbreviated searches can be useful in searching the files of large companies that contain many reports, and of smaller firms that may have servers of limited power.

Search engine optimization is more complicated than this brief explanation suggests. Some books that discuss at length how to use search engine optimization include:

  1. Peter Kent, Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, For Dummies (April 2004).
  2. Bruce Clay and Susan Esperanza, Search Engine Optimization All-in-One for Dummies, For Dummies (April 2009).
  3. Michael H. Fleischner, SEO Made Simple: Strategies for Dominating the World’s Largest Search Engine, CreateSpace (May 2009).