Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series.

The challenge of capturing experienced employees’ knowledge before they retire or opt for another job has mystified talent development professionals since long before that job title existed. Unfortunately, the traditional approach of asking someone to share everything he or she knows with a co-worker or to write it in a document hours before the exit interview has proven ineffective, not to mention disrespectful. It took the individual years of working to acquire knowledge; why would anyone believe that such a volume of information could be recalled and reasonably packaged in a few hours, days or even weeks?

What has proven as a stop-gap measure over the years is the idea of sharing this information with co-workers in a structured regimen. Mentoring, augmented with documentation that records how certain issues were addressed and problems solved, is an effective and accepted approach to knowledge transfer. However, it requires a significant commitment of time and resources by the organization, and if the matching of individuals for mentoring purposes is not carefully considered, it may produce less than desired results.

A new process that has emerged with the advent of recent technological advances is proving to be a more valuable and efficient process. It employs a just-in-time approach: When someone encounters a problem or has a question, he or she may bring it to light, and a wealth of experience can be quickly brought to bear. Nalco Champion, an Ecolab company serving the energy sector, has done just that by borrowing from social media the concept of a discussion board, where topics are posted for consideration by individuals around the world. In doing so, Nalco Champion has taken knowledge transfer, capture and preservation to a new level.

Before Champion Technologies Inc. (CTI) merged with Nalco to become Nalco Champion, corporate management realized the existence of a significant problem—chemists were not salespeople, and salespeople were not chemists. CTI, a family-owned business that produced chemicals for commercial use in the energy industry, had seen explosive growth in recent years, shooting its global population up to nearly 3,000 employees. The problem was that this growth made it difficult to know what chemical solutions researchers were developing globally. The sales force wasn’t always able to recommend the best solutions to customers, and chemists in one part of the world might be creating a solution that researchers in another region had already developed.

When the company was smaller, chemists and salespeople had more frequent contact with each other. It was easier to know who the experts were and who was doing what, which allowed everyone to communicate ideas freely. Given the growing size of the workforce, identifying experts was no longer as easy, and the enterprise could miss potential sales opportunities as a result. Upon further investigation, CTI management began to understand this situation was also a problem-solving issue with its roots in the challenge of knowledge transfer, capture and preservation.

CTI management reached outside the organization to see how other companies were addressing this issue and consulted with the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), a global benchmarking and best practices organization. APQC helped CTI benchmark the idea of knowledge capture with major corporations, including Conoco Phillips, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil and FMC Technip. This exercise revealed that solutions existed, but CTI would have to select and fine-tune an approach that met its specific needs and situation.

APQC’s research established five levels of knowledge management maturity:

  1. Initiate: growing awareness
  2. Develop: localized and repeatable practices
  3. Standardize: common processes and approaches
  4. Optimize: measured and adaptive
  5. Innovate: continuously improving practices

This model provided Nalco Champion a useful means to assess the status and subsequent advancement of its knowledge management effort. APQC also defined the set of competencies that are recommended for design, implementation and operation of an effective knowledge management effort.

The CORE Program

The CORE program encompassed several key elements essential to the success of the program. Among them were an online discussion board, incentives to inspire participation from personnel at all levels of the organization, and a steering and support team with well-defined roles and competencies.

As the name indicates, the CORE program was designed for connecting employees with the resources necessary to do their jobs. This design addressed the challenge of helping employees troubleshoot questions and quickly connecting them with reliable answers. An online discussion board seemed to be the perfect solution.

To make the process manageable on an enterprise-wide scale, discussion topics were divided into different channels, called networks, such as Chemical Processing Industry, Employee Essentials, Fuel Additives, Refinery and Safety. Initially, a handful of networks were established, but the count has since grown to 18 categories. They are mostly aligned with business units and will likely encompass additional channels in the near future. Participation in the networks was open across business units to any employees whose job function was relevant to the topic. This approach proved useful in breaking down the traditional silos that often develop in large organizations.

The CORE program quickly became part of an existing effort endorsed by the CEO and served the corporate mantra “Don’t let growth outpace viability,” which had already identified several issues surrounding the rapid growth of the enterprise. Quickly connecting employees with the information they needed to do their jobs was a key remedial element. The program also accelerated benefits of the Nalco Champion merger by bringing employees from both legacy organizations together on networks to share their knowledge and experience.

Here’s how it works: Each member of the network receives an email summary of CORE program activity from the past 24 hours, and members are encouraged to respond if they have encountered the posted problem or know how to resolve it. Network members can also choose to receive an immediate email alert. Business teams monitor activity on each discussion thread to ensure the issue gains the timely attention of an appropriate subject matter expert (SME).

SMEs are an essential component of the program. They are content experts recognized by their peers and stakeholders for their high level of knowledge and experience and their ability to communicate effectively. They have often developed tools or specialized knowledge in their discipline. Non-SMEs with useful experience may also respond, relieving SMEs of the responsibility of responding to all issues and freeing them to focus their attention on tougher business challenges.

If no responses are forthcoming within a specified time frame, the question is pushed out to members of the network by the network leader. A discussion thread remains open until a viable solution is identified. Most start receiving responses within 24 hours, and by four weeks most threads are closed, because the problems they addressed have been solved.

Thread closure automatically triggers an evaluation regarding the possibility of generating success stories, Wiki articles, returns for proposals and technical training from the content of the thread, which, once packaged more succinctly, can be pushed out to various elements of the workforce. Analysis of the response data identifies issues that were problematic, systemic or recurring, necessitating additional resources. Once there is a workable solution, the discussion thread is also evaluated on whether it had a positive impact on the business in terms of learning, safety, and direct or indirect financials.

Libraries are an additional element of the CORE program. Any member of the workforce can contribute materials to the library. Employees can easily locate information in the library using online searches that filter by topic; type of file; or words, phrases, or metadata. A recent addition to the program is the launch of CORE wiki. Using the same software as Wikipedia, the CORE wiki is a repository for encyclopedic articles written by internal SMEs or individuals being mentored by SMEs. The articles have credibility, because they are vetted by reviewers.

As more and more useful information is accumulated, the CORE program has evolved toward pushing relevant information on a timely basis to the workers who need it. Rather than waiting for someone to encounter a problem and post it on the discussion board, information that has already been collected is packaged and forwarded to specific individuals and groups of individuals who are in a position to benefit from it. Networks have also started presenting virtual learning events focused on topics relevant to the network members. The CORE program website, which is hosted internally, provides a central location where employees can access a full variety of information and resources related to each of the various networks.

Parts two and three of this case study will be published in May and June 2019.