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EPRI guidelines help capture valuable undocumented knowledge of energy industry personnel

Palo Alto, Calif., August 26, 2002 — A new report from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) provides guidance for capturing the valuable knowledge of expert personnel and transferring it to others in order to help mitigate potentially negative consequences when workers leave a job or are otherwise unavailable.

The rapidly changing industry environment, combined with the aging of the “baby boom” generation, poses a growing challenge to the energy industry. Many experienced, highly knowledgeable managers and workers are departing-or soon will be-due to retirement, job transfers, downsizing, and other reasons. Furthermore, those experts who remain are not always around when they’re needed, resulting in potentially negative economic, environmental, and safety consequences.

“After extended periods of employment within complex work environments, some staffers become seemingly irreplaceable: They know things others don’t, and they can do things others can’t,” says Madeleine Gross, EPRI manager of the Strategic Human Performance Program. “With this project, we set out to address a critical question: When experts leave an organization-at the end of their shift, for vacation, or forever-how do we prevent their expertise from also walking out the door?”

Expert personnel are extremely valuable assets to an organization because they harbor unique and specialized knowledge that enables them to perform tasks more efficiently and effectively than other employees.

“Many types of explicit knowledge may be captured effectively, but other types-particularly tacit knowledge-are not easily accessible, codifiable, or transferable,” says Lew Hanes, EPRI project manager. “Tacit knowledge is located in the expert’s ‘head’- sometimes at an almost subconscious level-and is often difficult to articulate. Experienced facility operators, for example, may sense incipient problems in critical systems, but they may not be able to describe why they sense them, and thus are unable to provide guidance on how less experienced workers might be more observant. It may be necessary to apply specialized knowledge acquisition methods to elicit such valuable expertise.”

The EPRI report, “Guidelines for Capturing Valuable Undocumented Knowledge from Energy Industry Personnel” (1004663), outlines a practical process for capturing tacit knowledge. Developed from extensive background research and from field-testing activities conducted during 2001, the report characterizes techniques for eliciting valuable knowledge from experts, storing it in useful and accessible ways, and presenting it to less experienced workers in a manner that will help them perform routine tasks or tackle difficult ones.

“During this period of rapid energy industry change, companies require a systematic, proactive framework for maintaining and enhancing workforce expertise,” says Hanes. “The Guidelines meet that generic need and also provide valuable insights for selecting elicitation techniques to retain the knowledge capital held by individual experts or teams. The field tests provided experience in eliciting valuable knowledge from experts with a variety of responsibilities at a range of facilities to ensure that the guidance report would be applicable throughout the energy sector.”

The report culminates a three-year study by EPRI’s Strategic Human Performance Program to address growing concerns about workforce turnover and demographics within the energy industry. Its practical guidelines for the capture, storage, retrieval, and presentation of undocumented knowledge should also prove useful in many other industries. For more information contact Lew Hanes, [email protected], (614) 488.5345; or Madeleine Gross, [email protected], (650) 855.2855.

EPRI, headquartered in Palo Alto, was established in 1973 as a center for public interest energy and environmental research. EPRI’s collaborative science and technology development program now spans nearly every area of power generation, delivery and use. More than 1000 energy organizations and public institutions in 40 countries draw on EPRI’s global network of technical and business expertise. For information about EPRI’s programs, visit the EPRI Destinations website at http://www.epri.com/destinations/