Retention interviewing

Knowledge Retention (otherwise known as Knowledge Harvesting) is a response to the risk of the loss of crucial knowledge when senior staff leave your organisation, and is often used as part of a Knowledge Retention and Transfer strategy. In traditional manufacturing and engineering it is driven by an aging workforce and a lack of supply of new engineering graduates. It is such an issue that some industries have given it a name, such as "The Great Crew Change"; the euphemism used in the oil industry. In China, the single child policy means that the rate of replacement doesn't match the rate of retirement, resulting in an ageing worker demographic. In South African, the employment equity legislation means that many old and knowledgeable people are retiring to make room for a workforce that matches the country demographics.

However this knowledge need not be lost. We are helping many companies put in place a Knowledge Retention strategy, to cover the risk of crucial knowledge loss. This process contains the following elements;

A full knowledge retention program needs to be approached strategically and systematically, putting in places coaching and community processes to allow gradual and planned transfer of critical knowledge. However often an organisation finds that the only possible response to a Retention need is to put in place a Retention interview.

An interview is the most effective way to capture the knowledge from an individual. Interviewing is a form of dialogue; a question and answer process which continues until the interviewer feels they have reached core knowledge, expressed as future recommendations, based on ground-truth. Who to interview. The harvesting interview may be taking place because the interviewee is leaving, or has become an expert possessing knowledge that others require - or indeed any purpose for which knowledge from an individual is required.

You need a quiet location where you will not be disturbed. An empty meeting room, or a quiet room in the interviewee's home, would be ideal. Make sure that the door is closed, that no telephone calls will be put through, and that any noisy fans or air-conditioning units are switched off. You may need to set up recording equipment and video equipment, and do sound checks.

Spend a few minutes talking through the project informally, before you start the official interview. Explain once again who you are, why you are there, and what you will be doing. Reassure them that they will have editorial control over anything that's published. Reassure them that the bulk of the interview will be just "having a chat" and that any audio or video recording is for transcription purposes.

Start off the process by helping the interviewee identify particular successes or failures he has been involved with. These tend to provide the most learning points, and are good places to start. Ask "what were the key factors that made this a success?" or "What were the main things that disappointed you about the process?" As the interviewee speaks, make a list of these factors, because you will be going back to these as the interview progresses. Useful questions at this stage include " Tell me about this experience. " What were the highlights? " What were the disasters?

Assuming you have identified some successes or success factors, you need to start probing for the specific repeatable reasons for success. For example, you might say "One of the success factors you mentioned was "teamwork". Can you tell me how this good teamwork was achieved?" Other useful questions might be "Why do you think your teamwork was so successful?", or "If you were advising someone starting a similar project, what things would you advise them to do to ensure great teamwork?" Similarly with the challenges/ disappointments - you might say "One of the major challenges you mentioned was the poor relationship the company had with its main supplier. Why do you think this relationship was so bad?" "What precisely went wrong, and why?" or "If you were starting over tomorrow, what would you do differently to improve the relationship?"

As the interview develops, you might find that new avenues of questioning develop. You can get into a questioning cycle, as follows; " ask questions " explore the answers " summarise and feedback " develop new questions. Don't be satisfied with wooly answers; press for specifics. You are looking, all the time, for recommendations for the next person doing similar work. It is also worth spending time with the interviewee identifying their key reference documents, their key contacts, and the structure of their working year.

End the interview by asking the interviewee to summarise the main lessons. The following question is one which we find very useful in prompting a good summary; "As a summary of what we have been discussing (and this will probably be repeating some of the things we've been through); if you were speaking to somebody who was just about to start on a similar project tomorrow, what would your key points of advice be?" This section of the interview can be a good one to capture on video or audio file. You may want to give them a couple of minutes preparation time, or thinking time, before running the cameras.

The best way to transfer knowledge is in the words of the people involved. There is no real substitute for audio recording. Make sure you have a back up however - either speed-written notes or an alternative form of recording such as video, or even both. Always ask permission before audio-recording.

You should now have a tremendous wealth of material to build into a corporate knowledge asset for the organisation. Remember it may take 2 to 5 times longer than the interview took, to turn the material into a knowledge asset (excluding transcription time).

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