Three signs your company is leaking knowledge (and its identity)

In very competitive markets, where firms need to attract new bright minds to be able to keep up with the competition, the right company culture can be decisive to attract and retain talent.

Defining and promoting the fittest company culture can be one of the toughest challenges an organisation may face internally. It requires considerable effort to determine the right values, translate them into a clear and understandable message, and make sure that management is leading by example, by consistently adhering to its predicaments.

The company culture, together with its knowledge base, defines the identity of the whole organisation. The worst that can happen to an organisation is losing their culture, their knowledge – or both – and with them, their identity. It sounds dreadful; however, it is not unusual for companies to walk into some common pitfalls that will slightly erode their heritage.

There are three early warnings of a “leak” in your company heritage.

Not investing in new employees

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The first warning is usually an inadequate onboarding of new hires.

New talents are likely to have higher motivation and be much more engaged than other employees and are the ones with the highest potential to become the new evangelists of the company culture. I would want them to receive full access to the knowledge base of the organisation, and to contribute to the betterment of all practices by sharing knowledge and techniques, they learned from previous work experiences.

These are the premises behind one of the most common methods to onboard new hires in a company, the “buddy system”. In case you are not familiar with it, the “buddy system” is a procedure in which new employees receive a fast and standardised orientation session from HR on general company policies, while the organisation tasks a colleague (a.k.a. “buddy”) with showing new joiners the process and practices in use within the department and the specific unit.

This system was designed to accelerate the productivity and the integration of new hires by pairing them with a knowledgeable peer instead of the line manager – who would likely make them feel under scrutiny. However, a successful buddy system requires buy-in from staff and management. Buddies should be seasoned employees who understand not only the practices but also the company culture, volunteers with high-performance standards.

The “buddy system” is utilised by a significant number of companies that underestimate, in many instances, the level of support this method requires to maintain its efficacy.
The general assumption is that buddies will keep going on with their ordinary tasks, while new employees will observe and capture as much as possible, and will need some help just with filling the blanks. That assumption becomes a mistake when the designed buddy is an overloaded colleague who has only time to put the spotlight on the subset of procedures relevant to the work they are carrying out. Making that a habit, in a few hiring cycles, new joiners would start receiving third-hand (and partial) knowledge, and struggle with filling the blanks.

The mistake is thinking that this system favours practice and learning on the job over theory and what-if scenarios, while it cannot renounce to either.

Reinventing the wheel

The second warning is a direct consequence of the first one. If new hires don’t get access to the whole knowledge base, once they will start working autonomously they will notice many grey areas in what they learned. “Doers” will feel compelled to fill those blanks and will likely put some effort into crafting material and procedures that might be already part of the corpus of knowledge – what is normally called “reinventing the wheel”. Less proactive colleagues will make do with what they have, and that will result in an inferior quality of the outputs.

 

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In global organisations, this issue is even more pressing as it is generally harder to consolidate new learning, resulting in the creation of multiple branches of the same knowledge base, with local variations and diverging practices. Management should foster knowledge-sharing across regions and unify the onboarding process. Regional differences should not be forbidden but instead embedded in the knowledge base, that should be flexible enough to adapt to specific needs and cultural variations.

 

No clear ownership

The third and last warning is having too many owners of practices – which in many cases is the same as not having one. As much as it is true that people working on the ground are usually the most significant contributor to the improvement of practices, it is also true that all those people are inclined to focus on their department or unit, on the specific requirements of the particular projects they work on. They are likely to lack a global view.

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Practices and knowledge-base must consider the requirements of every single team as well as how units and departments collaborate. New learnings must be “sanitised” before being embedded in the existing body of knowledge, and only somebody with an in-depth understanding of the role of each cog in the wheel will know how to do that without disruptions.

At the same time, that owner cannot work in isolation, preserving only the theory, with no validation from real-life applications. The owner has to champion the process, mentor employees at all levels and coach the whole organisation while channelling every lesson learnt and discovery inside the knowledge base. Not to mention the fact that it takes quite some proficiency with change management to keep the engine going while pushing small changes and improvements.

Conclusion

A company should continuously measure the quality of their knowledge-base and its efficacy across different departments. Practices are ultimately a tool, and they should be accessible, but at the same time, they are the manifestation of both business model and company culture. As such, they are a real litmus test for the health of an organisation and neglecting to care for them is the same as giving up your own identity.

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