In 2009 I listened to Peter Senge’s keynote address at the CSTD national conference. His research findings showed that the average life expectancy of large companies is about 30 years, but some are over 200 years old, and the key driver for their longevity is organizational learning. Individual learning in organizations is irrelevant, as work is almost never done by one person alone. Knowledge, Senge said, is the capacity for effective action (know how) and it is the only aspect of knowledge that really matters in business and life. Value is created by teams and mostly by networks of people. While learning may be generated in teams, this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks.
Another point that stuck with me, as I had witnessed this, was Senge’s observation that the field of knowledge management had been co-opted by information technology vendors, and had become useless for organizational learning. I was reminded of this while reading, Lost Knowledge: What are you and your organization doing about it? -
Executives have known about “lost knowledge” and retiring Boomers for years, and yet very few companies have taken steps to insure that there is some sort of effective knowledge transfer from Boomers to younger employees.
Knowledge cannot be transferred. This is the big conceit of knowledge management. This “loss of knowledge” when older workers retire is a symptom of a structural problem. It shows that the company never gave any thought to organizational learning.
- Are employees narrating their work in a transparent environment?
- Does the daily routine support social learning?
- Is time made available for reflection and sharing stories?
Successful, and long-lived, organizations do this all the time, not just when a demographic blip hits them.
Retiring baby-boomers are just one more wake-up call to dysfunctional organizations.