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What is organizational knowledge?

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

I was doing an audit at a small manufacturing firm back in December and the client was confused about the requirements in section 7.1.6 Organizational Knowledge. I was having a difficult time expressing the need to make sure there was an adequate back up plan if his key operators suddenly could not perform their duties. He indicated that was a silly requirement and he certainly has enough back up personnel.

Fast forward three months and understanding what the standard requires is a much easier concept to explain. COVID 19 has demonstrated the need to identify critical operations and the type of knowledge that would be required if a significant number of personnel are on sick leave. For reference, this article is being written at the point where the majority of our country is under some type of quarantine and confirmed cases of the virus are increasing daily.

You need to look at this situation from a triage standpoint. In a crisis you stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient and control what you can control. Now is not the time to write a comprehensive manual on all the steps someone takes to effectively perform their job function. Now is the time to identify the type of knowledge that you may need if key personnel are unavailable and create a training triage. Before we talk about a solution let’s discuss some common types of organizational knowledge:

1. Know How: This is practical knowledge. For example I have fixed the remote control in our house so many times I have practical knowledge of the problem and possible remedies. No special expertise or skill just performed the task multiple times.

2. Dispersed Knowledge: Knowledge that requires multiple disciplines in your organization to determine the right answer. For example you may have a new product being introduced and it may require direct information from the engineering, production and marketing teams to determine why a feature was added to the product.

3. Situational Knowledge: This is localized knowledge. A plumber who has been servicing a particular client for multiple years may understand exactly where the source of a leak resides. A new plumber would have industry knowledge but unaware of that client’s particular needs.

4. Culture Knowledge: This is knowledge specific to your culture. A supervisor may understand that Bob is better equipped to run a part versus Mike. A good manager understands the strengths, weaknesses and motivations of their personnel.

5. Expert Knowledge: This is very specific knowledge that takes a specific skill, training and/or years of experience. A doctor performing heart surgery or an electrician working on a grid would have knowledge based on expertise, education and training.

In a time of crisis it will be extremely difficult to replace culture knowledge and expert knowledge. This type of knowledge takes years of experience and it is unlikely it can be obtained in a crisis so let’s discuss controlling what you can control.

1. Know How: This is the type of knowledge that could be figured out in time but you don’t have a lot of time. Consider a quick troubleshooting guide that identifies problem causes and potential solutions or basic work instructions that identify specific steps of an operation that must be followed to get a positive result. Occasionally the key to a positive result is simply changing the battery before you decide to reprogram the remote.

2. Dispersed: If key personnel were not readily available what types of technical information or knowledge would be needed in the short term? Is the location of that information readily available? Do you have access to that information? If you needed to search for an answer what types of information would you access? Consider creating a library of critical information in a designated folder with a brief summary of the information contained in that folder or a creating a directory of key information with hyperlinks that allow quick access. Keep in mind that information stored on computer systems is not always identified in a way that makes sense to someone unfamiliar with the process. In addition, get a list of passwords so you could quickly access personal computers or files.

3. Situational: You have skilled personnel who have departmental experience and with some basic understanding of the operational steps could perform the job adequately in an emergency situation. The quickest way to deal with this lack of knowledge is get out your iphone and video key steps of a critical operation. Have your personnel narrate and discuss why they are executing specific steps and the proper sequence. I recently visited a company who had key operators utilize go pros and recorded the steps of a complicated machine set-up. You are essentially creating your own in-house you tube channel. You don’t need any particular expertise in video editing. Production value is not important in a crisis situation.

Identifying organizational knowledge is no longer a “silly” requirement. We are in a unique crisis and preparing for a lack of critical personnel has just become a priority.

Stay safe and God bless.

Joel Pecoraro

Director of Operations

American Certification Group

March, 2020

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