INTERVIEW with Michelle Unger, ROSEN Group: ‘The importance of Knowledge Transfer in Industry’
The ROSEN Group is an international company that inspects complex and sensitive engineering structures such as oil and gas pipeline systems and above-ground storage facilities.
ROSEN was formed in 1981 by Hermann Rosen, and today it operates in more than 100 countries worldwide.
Michelle heads ROSEN’s Education Systems and Services group, and was interviewed by PHL about knowledge transfer in industry.
Michelle Unger on ‘Knowledge Transfer’
PHL interviewed Michelle Unger of ROSEN Group and asked about her views on knowledge transfer.
- Michelle, you have been at ROSEN for two years, following 15 years in Penspen Ltd., UK. I want to ask you about knowledge in our industry, and particularly knowledge transfer.
- I joined ROSEN in 2015, after working on training and education at Penspen Ltd., UK. During my years at Penspen I developed an interest in learning and knowledge transfer, and became heavily involved in both university education (at Newcastle and Northumbria universities in the UK) and industry training. I quickly learnt that knowledge in any business is key to success.
Why is knowledge key? Well, data and information are easily stored and so are easily managed and transferred. Knowledge is the data, information, skills, experience, lessons learnt, wisdom, etc., contained in an individual’s brain, so it cannot be all stored, but it can be managed, by effective transfer mechanisms.
We know that knowledge is acquired over time, by experience. I think Albert Einstein summed it up very well when he said ‘Knowledge without experience is merely information’.
- So, knowledge is acquired over many years?
- Yes, and capturing this knowledge actually creates a problem. Experts in any discipline continue to amass knowledge as they progress through their careers. Therefore, you need to capture this knowledge before they end their careers, otherwise there will be too much data to download!
- Can we go back to your statement that knowledge transfer is ‘key to business success’.
- Yes, what we have to do is transfer an individual’s knowledge into our organizational knowledge, which is easy to access and use. An organization’s knowledge is a summation of their staff’s knowledge. Knowledge gives the organization a leading edge, as it creates efficiency and solutions to everyone in the organization. I recall a survey by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that estimated 40 percent of engineering time is dedicated to locating and validating information gathered from separate information systems. This shows an absence of knowledge management.
We also have to be pragmatic: knowledge transfer must be linked to business objectives, so it is business-led, and has to be linked to the company’s overall vision.
But perhaps the most important business issue is this: if you are not using all your staff’s knowledge you are wasting resources. That does not make business sense to anybody. Knowledge is of little use unless you use it.
- Is this transfer more important today?
- Yes – in most industries – because knowledge can be lost. In some industries, such as those in Silicon Valley, technology and systems change every year; therefore, there is not the same importance attached to technical knowledge and experience. There is limited use in knowing the technology used in computing 15 years ago, or old operating systems.
This is not the case in the oil and gas industry where knowledge is developed over years of experience. This industry has an ageing workforce: this is well-documented. This means we have an experienced workforce, many of whom will soon retire. And we have not been good at succession-planning, so we do not always have replacements at hand.
This ‘loss’ is not restricted to older staff leaving the industry. Generations X (people born between about 1965 to 1984, like me) and Generation Y (people born between about 1985 to 2000) move jobs frequently: knowledge can be lost due to staff leaving a company. Stopping this loss is just as important as its transfer.
Today’s office may have four generations working next to each other, and knowledge transfer is needed between all these differing generations, as they all have differing learning preferences.
- How do you create an environment that encourages knowledge transfer?
- First you have to know where your knowledge is, who has it, and what do you need to transfer. If you do not know this, you will fail. You must determine which knowledge you want to transfer, and this is usually easily determined using your business strategy.
I can give you five ‘rules’ for knowledge transfer.
- PLAN: Knowledge transfer will not happen by chance. You must have a strategy.
- DESIGN: You can help transfer by doing simple things like building/office design. You need to have places and spaces where staff can gather and talk in both a formal and informal way. This leads to interaction, sharing ideas, and experiences. Our research centre at ROSEN has break-out areas, a large foyer with coffee tables and sofas, and we have food and drink dispensers within a few metres of all our staff. Obviously you cannot rely on chats next to the coffee machine for your knowledge transfer, but it creates the right environment.
- CULTURE: You need a culture that encourages knowledge-sharing. This culture will include a learning culture (e.g., training and development programs), but is mainly about actively and formally encouraging staff to work together, collaborate, and share. I know that NASA has been active in sharing knowledge, and they have been trying to change the old belief that ‘knowledge is power’, to ‘sharing knowledge is power’.
- OUTREACH: I also believe you must not be too ‘internal’ with knowledge transfer. Much knowledge exists outside your organization; for example in universities. This has to be accessed.
- WELCOMING: Finally… and this is important… incentivise your staff to transfer knowledge by making it attractive and welcoming. We all want a ‘welcome’ when we enter a hotel, or a restaurant, or a home. It is the same with knowledge transfer – make your knowledge transfer locations (cafes, coffee machines, etc.) welcoming, and make your websites and knowledge locations attractive.
- Do you have knowledge databases? Can staff access the knowledge in your company?
- As I said before, information can be stored in databases, and that is good and necessary. But the key to accessing knowledge is accessing the person with that knowledge. They need to be available. I would rather ask an expert a question rather than try and obtain an answer from one of his/her papers.
Having said that, we do have a good internal knowledge management system (including the databases), and are now implementing a similar platform open to the industry – we do believe knowledge transfer is a key part of any process, and are therefore investing in systems to enable access to these experts, and their expertise.
- Can I take you back to one of your answers? You mentioned that ‘experience’ was key to knowledge.
- Yes, and this experience is essential for two reasons: first, the expert gains his/her knowledge through experience, and second, all staff need experience to be able to do their job. Information is not sufficient; for example, I would not like to take my driving test, after only reading about driving.
- OK, but how do you manage this experience? How do you ensure staff obtain the right experience?
- Career management is an obvious answer, but I prefer to use the word ‘mentoring’.
Databases, meetings, training courses, ‘communities of practice’, job rotation, sabbaticals, etc., can all help with this experience, but I think mentoring is equally important.
We have all benefitted from a past or present mentor. The mentor could be in your company, from your student days, or a family member/friend. Mentoring is simply a personal relationship between two people, with the objective of knowledge transfer, and personal development. It often involves ‘story-telling’ where the mentor relates his/her experiences to the mentee.
Many staff are too busy to offer this one-to-one service, but it really is key to knowledge transfer.
- What about the use of social media in knowledge transfer?
- Much of our future learning will rely heavily on the internet and social networking. Online learning will gradually become a norm, but there is a limit to this learning; for example, you cannot become a surgeon via online learning. You must have experience. You must practice.
This is the secret – you need to ‘blend’ your learning, and use all methods and technologies. But – and this is important – whatever method of learning you use, please ensure it has good content! Your method of learning is useless if the materials are poor.
- How are ROSEN implementing knowledge transfer?
- First, ROSEN supports conferences and exhibitions, where knowledge transfer occurs. You will see the ROSEN name at our industry conferences.
Within ROSEN we create the ‘right’ environment both in terms of management and office design. We are also creating business lines to facilitate this transfer. We have created an ‘education’ business line that will work on staff competency, and offer training and educational services to our clients.
Our research centre exists to create and transfer knowledge to both our staff and our clients. The research centre is our commitment to knowledge.
- Finally, what is your hope for the future? What is your hope for the future of our industry?
- The past has seen the baby boomer generation freely share and pass on their knowledge (sharing is in their DNA), but the future is with Generation Y and the Millennials (those born after 2000): these generations are the future workforce, and we need to transfer our knowledge to these generations. This means that Generation X are in the middle of a sandwich: between the baby boomers and Generation Y. I hope that Generation X can lead and facilitate knowledge transfer – it is clearly in their hands.
My final ‘hope’ is that our industry will realise that people are a key part of our technologies. Good technologies are no use without good people. The future will see fantastic technologies: we have to ensure we also have fantastic people. The future may well see ‘people’ as being the weak link in our industry.
- Many thanks for your time Michelle.
- It has been a pleasure.