Knowledge Retention: How to Capture and Preserve Knowledge at Work

Victoria Fiorini
4 mins
woman in office takes notes on laptop to help with knowledge retention

As humans, we are wired to forget. According to a concept referred to as the forgetting curve, individuals forget about 50% of information within one hour of hearing it. Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to improve your recall of information.

However, the problem also applies to organizations. Companies can easily “forget” information too. How? Just think: when employees leave, they take all of their knowledge with them. Unless you have a knowledge retention strategy to document that information, you risk losing valuable resources every time a worker departs. 

What can you do to enhance knowledge retention and preserve critical information within your company? Below, we explore the basics of knowledge retention and how you can make sure your organization doesn’t “forget” any necessary information for the long haul. 

What is Knowledge Retention?

In general, knowledge retention refers to the process of absorbing and retaining information. For an individual, that typically looks like taking in information and transferring it from short-term to long-term memory. For example, do you remember the state capitals you learned in elementary school? That’s individual knowledge retention.

However, the concept looks a little different when you apply it to organizations. Within a company, knowledge retention refers to capturing and preserving the knowledge of your entire workforce, including processes, best practices, product information, and more.

Why Does Knowledge Retention Matter?

Knowledge retention isn’t just a nice-to-have—it’s an essential to help companies run efficiently and maintain a competitive advantage. Here’s why: 

Knowledge retention makes information transferrable

Knowledge retention takes information out of employees’ heads and puts it into a company-owned hub, such as a knowledge base. Once it’s documented and centralized, companies have the ability to access and transfer it whenever and wherever they need.

Critical knowledge stays within the company 

When knowledge is solely within an individual’s head, that person holds the key to the information—and if they decide to leave the organization, that knowledge is gone forever. Knowledge retention ensures that the knowledge stays within the company, even as individuals come and go.  

New employees are onboarded more quickly

One of the biggest benefits of a knowledge base is streamlined onboarding and training. New employees know exactly where they can access up-to-date information, which allows them to get up to speed quicker.   

Current employees access the knowledge they need more efficiently 

Knowledge retention also provides current employees with a trustworthy source of information. Rather than spending valuable time searching through files and emails, they can go straight to the knowledge hub and find the information they need to perform their jobs at a high level. 

What Makes Knowledge Retention So Hard?

Of course, knowledge retention isn’t always easy—which explains why so many companies simply go without it. Here are a few common knowledge retention challenges that companies face.

Most businesses start too late

Too often, companies attempt to capture employees’ knowledge when they’re already halfway out the door. There’s simply no way you can capture the full extent of a tenured worker’s knowledge during a 30-minute exit interview. Companies must begin knowledge retention efforts long before they’re worried about employees leaving. 

Complex knowledge can be challenging to document

Company information can’t always be distilled into quick bullet points or checklists. Knowledge is often complex, requiring details and nuance. In addition, it’s not always available in a straightforward document format—company knowledge can come in all sorts of forms, including email chains, videos, audio recordings, and Q&As.

Memory decays over time

The forgetting curve indicates that employees’ memory fades—quickly at first, but steadily over time, as well. If you ask someone to document something they learned years ago, the resulting information will likely be incomplete and imperfect. The sooner you document the knowledge, the more accurate and complete it will be.  

Keys to a Successful Knowledge Retention Strategy

So with those opportunities and challenges in mind, how can organizations effectively encourage knowledge retention? Here are three best practices.

Recognize and reward knowledge sharing

To encourage knowledge sharing and retention, companies must incorporate it into their culture. One of the best ways to do that is to recognize and reward employees who consistently share knowledge. This could range from publicly recognizing workers who document valuable information to using knowledge sharing as part of the criteria for promotions.  

Simplify the knowledge documentation process

Employees are much less likely to engage in knowledge sharing if it’s cumbersome and time-consuming—after all, their first priority is to fulfill their core job responsibilities. So, make it easy to document knowledge. Encourage employees to use nontraditional methods of documentation, such as recording a conversation with a subject matter expert on a smartphone and then uploading it into a knowledge base.

Promote ongoing learning

To promote a culture of knowledge retention, you must encourage employees to get familiar with your knowledge management platform. Make information and training materials available on demand so employees can access them as needed. With repeated exposure to the knowledge base, they will get more familiar with it, which will drive them to use it more often to record and preserve knowledge. 

How Is Knowledge Captured?

As your organization develops its knowledge retention strategy, it’s important to understand that different types of knowledge can be recorded in a variety of ways, including:

  • Formal documentation: Some information is readily available in common and easily accessible formats, such as Word documents or Excel spreadsheets, including policy and process documents.
  • Audio and video recordings: Other information is best recorded as an audio or video file, such as presentations, subject matter expert or client interviews, or product demos. With this type of information, seeing visuals or body language or hearing inflection helps provide valuable context and promote understanding.
  • Questions and answers: Employees in certain departments receive the same types of questions over and over again. For example, call center employees may provide the same troubleshooting advice multiple times a day. In these cases, a Q&A format allows a worker to record the answer to a particular question just once, and then make it available to all other employees.  
  • Visual content: Other types of information are image-based. For example, screenshots, infographics, and data visualizations simply can’t be recorded as text-based documents—they require graphics.

Because knowledge can be so varied, it’s essential that you choose a knowledge management platform that accommodates a wide variety of information types and formats. With the right strategy and solution, you can ensure that your company never “forgets” any critical information—so you can keep your employees informed and maintain your competitive advantage.

April 14, 2022

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