Knowledge retention: It’s just good management

Michael Kelleher's picture
Michael Kelleher, Principal Consultant, DNV GL
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At a recent conference to mark the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy, the Chair of the UK’s Health & Safety Committee stated that:

“What we want from to get out of today is the transfer of knowledge from people who were there at the time, those people who have come along the journey of learning for the oil and gas industry and actually handed over the baton to those younger people that they carry on this legacy and also with young eyes look forward to the health and safety of the future.” 

(Martin Temple, Safety 30, Aberdeen, 5-6 June 2018)

According to Pew Research, in the US alone, ‘roughly 10,000 “Baby Boomers” will turn 65 today and about 10,000 more will cross that threshold every day for the next 19 years.' This is a phenomenon that is not exclusive to the USA. With these retirements there will be an inevitable impact on industry, deep expertise will be lost. The gas industry is not immune to this phenomenon and all organisations need to understand their own specific challenges and develop strategies to mitigate the inherent costs of ignoring the issues. Organisations across the industry must confront the challenges of unprecedented levels of retirement, that involve enhancing their corporate memories and building strategies for retaining knowledge critical for performance.

The current contractions across the industry will inevitably compound the problems first exposed by earlier crises. The loss and attrition of business-critical knowledge and experiences can expose organisations to safety, continuity and performance risks. One important theme in the debates surrounding knowledge management in oil and gas is the great deal of experience that will leave the industry due to the current downturn in prices. Many cut-backs are causing a vast exodus of knowledge in the sector. In addition, the average age within the industry is relatively high, resulting in even more knowledge loss due to retirement.

How can the employees who remain within the company still build on that experience? The realistic answer is that it is impossible to retain all knowledge and experience. A company must understand which knowledge critical and which knowledge is less critical, e.g. because it is readily available on the market when needed. This critical knowledge must be managed properly within the company and retained for future operations. The ISO 9001:2015 section on organisational knowledge focuses on knowledge that is necessary for an organisation to fulfil its most important workflows/processes in the best possible way and to meet the organisational goals. DNV GL defines critical knowledge as the body of knowledge that is critical for performance. In other words, what do people in your organisation need to know, how do they maintain that knowledge and make it available to the right people at the right time in order to achieve your organisational goals?

Given the earlier quote, a focus on storing and re-using safety-related knowledge proposes a specific business case for knowledge retention activities. Long-term collective learning takes place through structured evaluation and debriefing of activities. The lessons identified during this evaluation process should be transformed into reusable knowledge and fed back again into operations and made accessible for re-use across the organisation. The focus here is on ensuring that those lessons and risks are not lost to the corporate memory. This seems like common sense. It’s also just good management.

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