Capturing Knowledge in Modern Military Organizations

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Recently, I overheard a conversation about NASA's proposed re-establishment of the manned lunar exploration program. They were surprised the forecast date of the return mission was not going to be until 2018--nearly 50 years after the first Apollo mission.

Additionally, they were in disbelief it would take that long to achieve something we've already accomplished given the availability of more advanced technical tools. Didn't they document what we did the first time? 

This expanded timeline can largely be explained by more complex objectives this time around, but the rest can be attributed to the erosion of the knowledge base related to space travel.

So how does this relate to our Air Force mission? Many of us have horror stories of moving to a new unit where the predecessor has either already moved (sometimes years ago) or doesn't have time for good turnover because he/she is preparing for their next job. In our current environment of reduced resources, it is vitally important to capture our most precious asset: the knowledge locked in our gray matter to ease this transition.

Knowledge can be categorized as both explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is structured and is easily articulated to others. This knowledge can be easily captured via technical order or regulations.

Tacit knowledge, however, is just the opposite. It is complex knowledge developed over time by an individual's experiences and is very difficult to codify or to communicate to others.

Organizations fuss over tacit knowledge because it often represents the richest knowledge it possesses. Problems arise when organizations need to transfer tacit knowledge from experts to personnel who will replace them. Prior to the industrial age, many business owners recognized the value of tacit knowledge. Trade skills were not normally passed through academic institutions, but through master-apprentice relationships. As we move into the "knowledge age," organizations must transition from this model and develop new strategies to capture tacit knowledge in order to remain effective.

In the Air Force, capturing tacit knowledge is further exacerbated by a dynamic personnel environment characterized by frequent turnover and a large percentage of relatively inexperienced personnel. A practice which could be better utilized in military organizations is the preparation of good continuity binders.

Optimally, the incumbent sits down with the replacement over a period of several days or even a few weeks to describe the key tasks and duties of the job. As stated earlier, many times this interactive period does not happen meaning the incumbent must create an extensive continuity binder to compensate. In order for the continuity binder to be effective, it must be based on the knowledge requirements of the replacement.

A good way to do this is for the incumbent to put himself in the mindset of the replacement. This should be fairly easy since the incumbent was likely in that position several years prior. The incumbent then succinctly writes out tasks, duties, pitfalls and key contacts to himself as if he were just beginning the job. I like to call this "things that would have been good to know yesterday." This may not capture all tacit knowledge gained while in position, but it gives the replacement a good starting point.

In today's operating environment of reduced manpower and other crucial resources, we can do our part to enable more efficient operations by documenting our critical tasks in a continuity binder. Although it takes time out of our already constrained day, it pays huge dividends for those who follow in our footsteps.