How to Prevent Involuntary Knowledge Decay: A Strategy for Effectively Managing Organizational Knowledge

Author

Brent Newton

Brent Newton is a Licensed Attorney, CPA, and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. He has been working for Special Counsel for three years.

The Issue of Knowledge Decay

Knowledge is power, but it is also temporary if it is not maintained. Historically, organizations have traditionally focused on knowledge-building (through employee training and development) and knowledge-acquisition (through employees’ recruitment and specialized knowledge contributions). However, less attention has been given to organizational knowledge-loss resulting from knowledge decay through “employee forgetting”.1 As a result, a condition has emerged over time wherein skills are being taught but not preserved, and employees are learning but not remembering long-term; knowledge learned is becoming knowledge lost. This is the essence of the knowledge decay phenomenon.  

Knowledge decay can become a common occurrence in an organization if left unchecked, and you may have already experienced it or observed it during your career. Have your employees ever forgotten basic company protocols learned on their first day of work (or learned during company onboarding)? Have you ever needed to remind employees who to report to and how to complete their reports? Have any of your employees experienced difficulty in remembering key steps and procedures for a task not completed in some time? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have likely encountered knowledge decay in your organization.

Comprehension lost due to knowledge decay by employee forgetting can be both costly and severely detrimental to organizational progress. This is because knowledge that isn’t retained must be re-taught which in turn, requires company resources to be spent on re-explaining and re-training time. Fortunately, knowledge decay can be prevented with certain measures. Therefore, the purpose of this post is to raise awareness of knowledge decay and, more specifically, the concept of employee forgetting. In addition, this post sheds light on a research-based strategy for managing organizational knowledge and avoiding employee forgetting. In this way, this post provides managers with guidance on helping their employees maintain the valuable knowledge acquired through skills development programs and on-the-job training.

The Problem of Involuntary Employee Forgetting

Without a doubt, it is simply human nature to forget obsolete, rarely-used, or never-used knowledge to make space for new, “useful” skills and information. Remember that Arthurian literature elective you took back in college? Unless this is a subject that you continue to work with on a regular basis, it is unlikely that you will remember all of the words from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Le Morte d’Arthur. The human brain truly is a warehouse for storing knowledge, and space is limited. For this reason, we naturally prioritize what to remember in our daily life and work.

With this in mind, it should be noted that not all “forgetting” is bad. In fact, certain voluntary employee forgetting can be used to an organization’s advantage. In their journal article, Remembrance of Things Past? The Dynamics of Organizational Forgetting, researchers Pablo Martin de Holan and Nelson Phillips identified the following two types of voluntary employee forgetting: Suspension and Purging.2 Suspension is an organization’s abandonment of new/recently-learned knowledge, innovations, or practices that impede the use of more valuable knowledge, innovations, or practices.2 On the other hand, Purging is “managed unlearning” and involves training employees to forget conventional/well-established knowledge, innovations, or practices considered to be obstacles to a company’s success.2 As you can see, both Suspension and Purging involve employees willingly forgetting knowledge at the organization’s direction, and both allow for the acquisition and use of more desirable knowledge.

In this way, voluntary employee forgetting can actually be extremely useful to an organization’s knowledge management efforts. Unlike voluntary employee forgetting with its beneficial applications, involuntary employee forgetting truly epitomizes knowledge decay. Similar to its voluntary counterpart, involuntary employee forgetting can be categorized into two types: Dissipation and Degradation.2 In short, Dissipation is the failure to retain newly acquired knowledge while Degradation is the failure to maintain an organization’s long-held knowledge.2 Both of these types of involuntary employee forgetting are harmful to an organization and result in knowledge-loss. However, both can also be prevented.

A Strategy to Prevent Involuntary Knowledge Decay

There are a number of knowledge management strategies that an organization can use to address employee forgetting. However, this post focuses on the broadest and arguably most powerful strategy for preventing involuntary employee forgetting: refresher practice sessions. More specifically, employees should partake in regular refresher practice sessions after completing initial trainings or learning new skills that will not be used for some time. Of course, the required frequency of refresher practice sessions may vary depending on the organization and subject matter involved.

Nevertheless, research suggests that without refresher practice, knowledge acquired through training can completely disappear 8 months after training is initially completed.3 Furthermore, in a study of height safety and rescue technicians, it was found that newly learned skills deteriorate within 4 weeks after they are acquired and not used.4 As a result, this same study recommended that refresher practice should be applied within 3 months after initial training for experienced employees and within 1 month for new employees.4

Conclusion and Recommendation

Based on the research findings discussed, organizations should implement regular refresher practice sessions for employees not currently using skills or knowledge learned in initial training. Although the frequency of sessions can be tailored according to organization and subject matter, the general rule of thumb should be to implement refresher practice sessions within 1 month after initial training for new employees and within 3 months after initial training for experienced employees. In this way, organizations can get ahead of the knowledge decay curve, help their employees retain valuable knowledge and skills, and avoid the costs of re-training employees.

References

  1. Jie Yan, Renjing Liu, Zhengwen He, & Xiaobo Wan. (2019). How to Manage Individual Forgetting: Analysis and Comparison of Different Knowledge Management Strategies. Journal of Artificial Societies & Social Simulation22(4), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.18564/jasss.4101 http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/22/4/2.html
  2. de Holan, P. M., & Phillips, N. (2004). Remembrance of Things Past? The Dynamics of Organizational Forgetting. Management Science50(11), 1603. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220534766_The_Remembrance_of_Things_Past_The_Dynamics_of_Organizational_Forgetting
  3. Getha-Taylor, H., Fowles, J., Silvia, C., & Merritt, C. C. (2015). Considering the Effects of Time on Leadership Development. Public Personnel Management44(3), 295–316. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091026015586265 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277929733_Considering_the_Effects_of_Time_on_Leadership_Development_A_Local_Government_Training_Evaluation
  4. Lawani, K., Hare, B., & Cameron, I. (2018). Integrating early refresher practice in height safety and rescue training. Safety Science110(Part A), 411–417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2018.03.029 https://researchonline.gcu.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/25620333/MANUSCRIPT.pdf

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