Knowledge, Learning Networks and Culture: The Future of Corporate Identity

Amid a deluge of layoffs and the forthcoming "boomer" retirements, organizations must maintain consistency and productivity to ensure the ongoing success of their businesses. Part of what sustains an organization’s longevity is the practical knowledge developed over time by its employees via learning networks. A competitive advantage is gained by maintaining the knowledge so that when someone leaves the organization, the continuity in processes, know-how and lessons learned remains. Knowledge repositories, blogs, wikis and communities of practice are all mechanisms some organizations utilize to help avoid the "brain drain" of organizational knowledge.

However, there are two other intrinsic corporate characteristics sometimes overlooked when organizations undergo the equivalent of "neural shock" when 30 percent to 60 percent of their employees retire in a three to five year period of time. The first is the breakdown of the network of relationships established and developed over a long period of time and the second is the change in culture of the organization. Both of these could dramatically change the personality of the organization and, if not managed, could lead to a period of stagnation in growth similar to a family run organization that passes from one generation to another.

In one sense, the change in culture and network serves to infuse the organization with fresh concepts, new ideas, and reconsidered methodologies and processes. In another, the change means a reliance on personal knowledge as opposed to corporate knowledge developed through experience and over time. The challenge is to use both to propel the organization into the future.

Retaining tacit knowledge (know-how, expertise, lessons learned, stories, etc.) of the top performers in the organization is critical. But instead of looking at mechanisms to capture this knowledge in the form of databases, videos and glimpses as to how a process or procedure is performed, why not build a formal learning curriculum around the know-how of and lessons learned by these top performers? This will allow the organization to capture the corporate knowledge and serve to benefit other highly engaged, highly performing employees to share in the lessons learned, best practices and stories. A customized learning program utilizing top performing, tenured employees as subject matter experts (SME) can serve this purpose as a knowledge repository while also having a greater purpose of engaging both the SME and those participating in the program. It is a way to formalize the informal learning, which is accomplished in some of the more informal means, instead of relying on wikis, blogs and communities of practice.

How can this learning curriculum be implemented in an organization? By nominating the top performers as subject matter experts to write case studies of what really happens in the organization, or develop simulations around real life situations. The SME can assist in co-developing learning courses or an entire learning program. The learning curriculum can be built internally or through partnership with a university skilled in co-developing customized learning programs to help in the execution of this in an online delivery mode. The organization will have a permanent record of what is important for other employees to learn directly from the minds of its top performers.

Technology is making tangible the notion of downloading knowledge from "soon-to-be-departed" management and key personnel into a degree completion program that can be updated as necessary in perpetuity and delivered online to engaged employees from China to Ireland to Mexico and the United States. Projecting the program into a corporate cohort program, one where everyone in the program starts and finishes at the same time, allows for the exchange of ideas between countries and facilities, encourages interaction that serves to build new networks, advances cross-culturalization and offers the additional feature of highlighting talent within the organization.