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Knowledge Harvesting

1 November 2005
A chalk drawing of a head with light bulbs coming out of it

It is a known fact that there are two kinds of knowledge in organizations: explicit knowledge- knowledge which is located in the operative systems and information systems, knowledge which is easy to access, share and utilize and tacit knowledge- informal knowledge which is usually acquired through intuitions and experience and differentiates between those "dealing" with a certain subject and those who specialize in it.

That is nothing new.

What is new is the knowledge harvesting approach which enables the organization to locate, document and simplify said tacit knowledge held by key workers and thus make it explicit and available to others active in the field. The aspiration of this approach is to reflect the internal decision making processes of said experts on a level that others can learn from, mimic and (hopefully) produce similar results.

Using the knowledge harvest approach is efficient in many situations such as:

When the organization wishes to "know what it knows"; when the knowledge is required for a specific, well defined purpose; when the organization wishes to retain the knowledge and experience of workers retiring from the organization; when the organization wishes to perform a change or improvement process in the organization or as part of a routine Knowledge Management activity.

The advantages of knowledge harvesting are obvious:

  1. The knowledge held by few people becomes available to others who might need it.

  2. The vital information isn't lost when people leave or retire.

  3. The information is accessible regardless of time, location or availability of the expert.

  4. Efficiency is enhanced thanks to improving the organization's "knowledge level".

  5. It can be performed relatively and cheaply.

How does one implement the knowledge harvesting approach?

Unfortunately, There is no miraculous formula that will instantly actualize the process, yet there general guidelines which may assist the organization to advance towards the implication of this method. These guidelines can be divided into a number of steps:

  • Focus: clearly define which knowledge you wish to focus on. Do not try to collect "all of the knowledge", since that is an impossible task. Follow your organization's goals, examine what needs improving or conserving and what is the knowledge you must collect in order to achieve these goals. Examples of critical knowledge include:

    - Knowledge concerning central activities/systems/equipment

    - Knowledge concerning retaining strategic client/supplier relationships

    - Informal knowledge concerning organizational culture, required in order to understand "how to get things going around here"

  • Select a defined target audience and learn it: consider whoever might use the knowledge, how many people this definition includes, their specific needs and average level of experience. Consider the best way to distribute knowledge for these users, and thus ensure efficient resources investment.

  • Locate your experts: locate those individuals who hold tacit knowledge from which you wish to "harvest" the knowledge. Remember, these are not necessarily the organization's veterans. In order to locate these experts, use an organizational chart (if one exists), consult managers or locate important documents and check their writers' names. After locating the experts, collect information about them: position description, area of responsibility, education, training and experience. You will need this information in order to validate their expertise.

  • Select your "harvester": The harvester is the individual who will actually perform the research and discover the tacit information. Choosing the right person for the job is critical as much of the process's success/failure depends on the harvester's ability to perform the research, interview people and get the right information "out of them". This process isn't an easy one, since experts aren't always aware of the knowledge they hold and require assistance in "recovering" this information and interpreting it. Do not write off the option of employing a professional interviewer. There is a correlation between the harvester's level of expertise and the quality and efficiency of the harvested information. If you wish to use an organization worker, it is recommended to use those naturally inclined to this sort of task such as consultants, instructors and researchers.

  • Harvest the knowledge: The most recommended method is face-to-face interviews. Request the experts to describe their conduct in specific events. The more focused the interview, the higher the received information's quality. Prepare yourself for the interview by preparing your own questions as well collecting questions from others. Examples of recommended questions include:

    - What is the first thing you do when…?

    - What would have happened if…?

    - Who do you involved when performing X?

    - What are common mistakes you see others make when performing X?

    - What do you believe will make X easier and better understood?

    - What is the most important thing to remember when performing X?

It is recommended to use a recording device when interviewing. It is faster than handwriting and ensures that no information is lost in the process. Another method involves interviewing in pairs. After performing a limited amount of interviews, stop. Return with the results to the users and review with them whether you "hit home", i.e. is the information new and contributive? If their answer is positive- you may proceed with the interviews. If not, this is the right time to perform the appropriate adjustments.

  • Organize, summarize and distribute: when you are finished collecting the knowledge, organize and edit so it can be appropriately presented to the target audience (this adaptation is critical). Consult your target audience regarding their preferred presentation method (database, systems, incorporation into work procedures, query system). Do not take this matter lightly: ensuring accessibility to information that all the work you've done doesn't find itself without a target audience. After a certain period of time, review your work and its contribution to the target audience. Like any knowledgebase, as soon as you are done- the knowledge begins to age...

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