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How to Leverage Training to Replace Institutional Knowledge in the Quality Organization

As companies face the challenges of a slowdown due to COVID-19, this may be the perfect time to review the maintenance of institutional knowledge and training. One of the foundational tenets of Quality is to ensure that products are produced consistently and effectively according to predefined procedures. Commonly, businesses use standard operating procedures (SOPs) to document the processes and activities needed to manufacture and test a product and its components. While this may be an established way of working for larger, more mature organizations, newer/smaller companies may rely on personal knowledge of how to manufacture and test a given product, or who to consult in a given situation. This presents a big challenge in the current work environment as companies struggle to remain active and retain their workforce in possession of this tribal knowledge.

Quality Institutional Knowledge

The current pandemic is forcing companies to make difficult decisions potentially involving layoffs or alternate (often remote) work arrangements. Without having procedures documented, companies face the risk of business and institutional knowledge vanishing as people walk out the door. According to a 2018 Panopto Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report, 42% of the skills and expertise required to capably perform in a given position will be known only by the person currently in that position. In other words, should that person leave, their remaining colleagues won’t be able to do 42% of their work, and someone hired into that role will need to learn 42% of it from scratch. Additionally, it is estimated that “… the average U.S. enterprise-size business may be wasting $4.5 million in productivity annually just due to failing to preserve and share knowledge and, thereby, making new hire onboarding more inefficient.” Breaking this down even further, “the average employee spends 5.3 hours per week waiting for assistance or insights from coworkers. During this time, employees either recreate their colleagues’ existing expertise or simply delay the work in question.” Other highlights from the study:

  • Delays due to unshared knowledge have a major impact on project schedules. 66% of all such delays will last up to one week, and 12% will last a month or more
  • 81% report feeling frustrated when they can’t get the information they need to do their job
  • 85% agree that preserving and sharing unique knowledge in the workplace is critical to increasing productivity
  • 81% state that knowledge gained from hands-on experience is the hardest to replace once it’s lost
  • In companies with higher turnover rates, employees were 65% more likely to state that it could be “very difficult” or “nearly impossible” to “get the information needed to do my job well”
  • While the average new hire receives 2.5 months of formal training, it can take up to 6 months for an employee to actually ramp up in a new role. These employees often struggle for up to 3.5 months learning the details of their job on their own, seeking out information, and inadvertently replicating work.

To replace the knowledge lost, companies may be required to re-hire former employees for short term assignments, bring on experienced consultants in the industry, or bring in technical resources from manufacturing equipment vendors. It is still possible, however, that some nuances may not be captured from these other resources.

By now, you can see the importance of having key processes documented and available for others to reference. This ensures product knowledge remains within the company and available for other team members. Having these procedures is even more important when you consider many companies are splitting staff into rotational shifts or working entirely remotely. Remote work arrangements can only be successful if documentation is stored and available electronically such as on a shared drive, SharePoint, or integrated eQMS system.

Working in split shifts brings to light another consideration – training, and more specifically cross-training. As resources are split, a focus on training is required as it becomes more important for individuals to execute processes with precision when oversight may not be immediately present. Additionally, cross-training is needed to be able to perform a broader range of activities to ensure business continuity, a benefit never more evident than in our current climate. Not only does cross-training build backup knowledge to business processes, it also provides employees with growth opportunities, investing in them and challenging them to learn something new. In turn, they’re more likely to remain with the company through difficult times.

Performing training is one thing, but to ensure credibility and reliability, it requires thorough documentation. Employees should maintain a training log and have it reviewed periodically such as during annual review processes. Larger companies may choose to invest in eQMS systems capable of tracking training activities and training requirements in the same platform containing their other regulated data points.

Investing now in shoring up your institutional knowledge management practices will pay dividends in the post-pandemic marketplace.  Maintaining your institutional knowledge or training processes is not a small endeavour, but the benefits, especially during a time of uncertainty, will far exceed your investments.

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Co-authored by Wayne Hurd and Rob Wojtowicz.

Tags: qua, Organizational Health, Quality Operations
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