Knowledge Disappearing Right in Front of Us

This week much of the world's media has been focused on the disappearance of Flight 370 in Malaysia. For those who don't know, Malaysia Airline Flight 370 left Kuala Lumpur early Saturday morning heading for Beijing and then, quite literally, disappeared. The plane never arrived in Beijing and so far no one has any real idea what has happened to it.

The plane, carrying 239 passengers, left Kuala Lumpur and was flying northeast across the Gulf of Thailand and into the South China Sea when it dropped off radar without any indication of technical problems.

Sadly, things look grave for the passengers and crew of Flight 370. And while our thoughts are with them and their families, the main question that keeps coming up time and time again is: how could this happen? How, in this day and age, does a modern passenger airline from a respected airline simply disappear without a trace in mid-flight? The plane involved is a Boeing 777 with supposedly all the latest technology, monitoring and radar equipment. And yet it still just disappeared.

While this seems like a strange segue, the unfortunate situation with Flight 370 got me thinking about how other things can disappear when there is no logical reason. In many companies the most crucial thing that disappears, on an all too regular basis, is knowledge. Despite all sorts of systems – email, document management, file storage – knowledge simply disappears inside companies all the time.

Whatever happened to that thing? Haven't we done this before? Why did we do that? These questions, questions we should know the answers to, get asked every day; knowledge disappearing right in front of us.

When most people think of knowledge retention they are actually thinking of data management without realising it, but there is a crucial difference between data and knowledge. Data relates to documents, spreadsheets, transactions and images. However knowledge refers to the human elements within a company; the discussions between team members, the great ideas, the key decisions and the reasoning behind action. In short, knowledge gives context, and data without context is of limited value.

Imagine trying to put a puzzle together without knowing what the full picture looked like. You could do it, but it's going to be a lot harder. Retaining the human context behind the data is like having the complete picture to reference, making the process more efficient and increasing productivity.

Understanding why a piece of data exists, what it was originally for, what value it adds to the organisation and what part it played in a previous decision are the contextual elements that knowledge adds to the raw data. Context helps us understand not just what we did but, more importantly, why we did it.

There will be one billion knowledge workers by 2015. Many of these workers will be remote or virtual, a trend that will increase dramatically over time. How will the vast amounts of knowledge these one billion workers be managed? How will their decisions be tracked? How will we maintain context in this chaos? Companies need to recognise this dramatic shift in their work practises and begin to adapt or risk being left behind. And as an industry we need to provide the tools and processes to help them.

Knowledge, not data, is the most important element each employee contributes to their team. At the moment when they leave they take this knowledge with them… disappearing right in front of us, even in this day and age.

Our thoughts are with the passengers and crew of Flight 370 and their families.