EDITORIAL: Don't Let Knowledge Walk Out the Door
Knowledge can be defined as applied information; that is, information together with the common sense to know when and how to use it. Information is not knowledge until and unless it is applied effectively. The addition of experience (individual or collective) to knowledge provides an invaluable asset. These assets-employees having a wealth of experience-usually are never fully tapped, and in too many instances are lost when the employee walks out the door the last time due to retirement or other reasons.
Such knowledge can be mined from experts in one-on-one encounters as problems arise-I still have my little notebook from many years ago full of answers I gleaned from "old-timers" to various foundry problems-or, it can be handled on a much more organized basis, such as is being done by Sandia National Laboratories.
Sandia developed a system described as a digital content management solution to preserve its institutional knowledge. The lab did this because it cannot afford to lose such knowledge when people retire. The system makes it possible to digitize and store several years' worth of videotaped interviews with outgoing employees, indexing them so new employees can quickly find the information they need.
Sandia first started knowledge management several years ago by videotaping conversations with many of its retired and soon-to-be-retired nuclear weapons engineers. The goal was to let future engineers and scientists see and hear the specialists' own words on the systems and technologies that were developed to resolve complex problems. However, that was only part of the answer because there was no quick way for new employees to locate the information they wanted. The new digitized system helps new employees locate the information they want because it makes it easy to index the video. Sandia's knowledge-preservation project leader, John Tissler, says it's like the difference between scanning the pages of a book for a piece of information and using an index in the back of the book to narrow the search to a handful of pages. It's like a virtual library where a person can quickly find information electronically as opposed to spending several hours, or days, thumbing through textbooks, test reports and videotapes.
Sandia is using software (Convera's Screening Room, Vienna, Va.) to digitize, index and store its videotape archives so authorized users can access the video content online, isolate the required information in minutes and view relevant video footage, all from their desktop computers. The tool provides scalable access to any video asset (analog or digital) from any Web browser.
The lab has videotaped and indexed interviews with about 120 retirees, and the video library is growing daily. The library also features about 50 tapes of symposiums and panel discussions on various topics, as well as classes for Sandia's intern program, which prepares young engineers to become experts in certain areas.
According to a knowledge-management consulting firm, technology can play a very important role in helping to bridge generations of experts, but it is not the most important factor involved in the sharing of knowledge. It has to be the right kind of technology that is pulled by people.