Part I

Fluid and open knowledge sharing is crucial for organizations to make quick and effective decisions.  While most organizations have effective processes in place to consolidate the knowledge provided by various print and electronic resources, it is much more difficult to capture the knowledge inside an employee’s head.  This is referred to as ‘unique knowledge,’ or the individualized experiences an employee has acquired from exposures to various work environments.  Unique knowledge is different than ‘standard knowledge,’ which typically comprises professional training and formal education.

But what happens when a company routinely loses employees?  According to LinkedIn member data on half-a-billion professionals, worldwide turnover rate in 2017 was 10.9% – with technology and software as the highest sector for turnover.  This is problematic, because each employee leaves with his own unique knowledge. If left uncaptured, coworkers need time to replicate that knowledge—typically a slow and inefficient process.  Uncaptured unique knowledge can shut down an entire work stream, present obstacles to new employees and cause massive frustration among employees who no longer have access to their colleagues’ knowledge and experience.

The Productivity Cost of Inefficient Knowledge Sharing

It is extremely difficult to quantify either the productivity or financial costs related to inefficient knowledge sharing.  However, the Panopto Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report recently attempted to do just that.  In a first-of-its kind study of 1,001 U.S. employees at large organizations, workers with an average of 15 years’ experience were surveyed regarding the importance of three different knowledge types within their organization.

First, the employees were asked how much of their current job relies on standard versus unique knowledge.  Respondents reported that 58% of the knowledge they need to do their jobs is standard and 42% is unique.  This suggests that when Jane—a valued team member—leaves the company, coworkers will be unable to perform 42% of Jane’s job.

When asked to rank unique knowledge against professional training and formal education, employees believed that unique knowledge comprises 51% of their workplace knowledge; 54% perceived that unique knowledge is the most important type of knowledge in the workplace; and 81% believed that unique knowledge is the more difficult to replace than either professional training or formal education.

Of note is that among those surveyed, 80% reported being frustrated at the inability to access a former colleague’s institutional knowledge, while 25% said they were overwhelmed.  Companies with higher rates of turnover (more than 20%) were 60% more likely to feel that it was very difficult or almost impossible to access the information they needed to do their jobs properly.

As employees leave their jobs, it’s likely that new people will be hired in their place.  This study was able to quantify the effect of new hires in the workplace.  The authors compared the total number of inefficient hours for employees with one year of service to those with multiple years of tenure.  Being new to the job was associated with 28 hours of inefficiency per month—time that was spent asking co-workers for help, waiting for information, and duplicating their coworkers’ efforts.

While this study has limitations in both its design and its execution, it does quantify what most workplace managers have known for a long time—companies who do not capture institutional knowledge leave themselves vulnerable to cost and productivity inefficiencies.

Ready to learn more? Part Two of this series addresses the financial costs of inefficient knowledge sharing, as well as strategies to minimize the knowledge drain that occurs when employees leave the workplace and take their unique knowledge and experiences with them.

Explore Copyright Clearance Center’s solutions for information and knowledge professionals. 


Author: Jill Shuman

Jill Shuman is a former Director of Product Engagement at Copyright Clearance Center and currently a CCC Consultant. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University School of Medicine, where she has taught courses in grant writing, searching biomedical literature and expository writing. Prior to her role at CCC, Jill headed up the corporate library and Knowledge Management Centers at Shire, and also served as a healthcare research analyst and an award-winning science journalist. She is active in SLA, HBA, and the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). In 2016, Jill was the recipient of AMWA’s lifetime achievement award for her success in teaching more than 40 classes, workshops, and seminars. When not at work, she can be found reading (on an e-reader to make the print bigger), looking for her glasses, or writing children’s mysteries that feature sick children as super sleuths.
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