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Wrangling Knowledge Capture

One of the greatest wastes in product development is forgetting valuable knowledge discovered during a design effort.

One of the greatest wastes in product development is forgetting valuable knowledge discovered during a design effort and having to learn it again on the next one. A cure for this waste ailment is a knowledge capture system. However, the process of integrating knowledge capture is a major effort and a significant behavioral adjustment. Plan ahead for the change.

The Rest of the Story

Have you ever sat in a product design review, or worse yet presented your design to a review board and explained the research and effort that went into developing your clever solution to a difficult problem, only to have someone in the room say, “I could have told you that if you had just asked?” I think it’s happened at least once to every experienced engineer.

If you have experienced it, then you know how frustrating it can be to learn that the last several weeks or months for an entire team of people was just spent re-doing what has already been done. What’s worse is learning that someone already had a solution that happens to be even more elegant than the one you just spent months developing.

It’s a common phenomenon and it is often lumped into the basket of “we don’t know what we don’t know” curses. Except that, in such a case, the curse is, “we don’t know what we already know,” which is really unacceptable.

When we experiment, conduct research into new technologies or design alternatives, or develop proof-of-concept ideas we often generate ideas or solutions that are not used immediately, but might still be useful. Similarly, just because a concept is not selected for one product, it does not mean that the concept isn’t useful as part of a solution for another product. What happens to all of these ideas and concepts once the initial project is over?

In small organizations, good ideas are less prone to being lost or re-learned because it’s almost impossible for a team to be developing something without everyone in the organization knowing about it. In this case, if someone else remembers something useful or important, they will share it. Though the knowledge exists in personnel memory, it remains and it will be shared.

In larger organizations, however, it’s easy for a development to take place without people knowing anything about it, and so that natural mechanism of identification and communication fails. To prevent the waste of re-learning what we have already learned we must install a mechanism of collecting, recording, and communicating useful information.

In years past, such a mechanism was often called a lessons learned database. Today’s popular term is a knowledge capture system. Whatever you call it, it’s a very valuable system for a product development or research and development business, but it can be difficult and frustrating to implement. It requires a great deal of organization, discipline, behavioral change, and especially learning and adjustment.

If your organization could benefit from a knowledge capture system, or if you are embarking on the integration of one, it can be pretty easy to justify the expense, but the effort is often underestimated. Below are some thoughts to help you prepare for the effort.

There are a number of knowledge capture solutions on the market to be purchased or leased and integrated with the support of the licensing agency. You also have the option of growing your own. Growing your own can be less expensive in the short run if you have the database development expertise in your organization and it has the added benefit of being customized to meet your unique culture and needs.

Regardless of how you decide to source or develop your knowledge capture solution, there is a great model for us to follow, the Internet. The Internet is a knowledge capture system with billions of users and thousands of solutions to help us capture, organize, and find knowledge. For this reason, it is this author’s personal preference and recommendation to seek knowledge capture solutions that are Web based systems instead of internal database solutions.

Two things in particular to consider when selecting your solution are maintenance, and access performance. You will want a solution that requires very little regular maintenance in order to sustain it or evolve it as your ability matures. Also, though this problem rears less often these days, you want to know that your system will continue to provide immediate response as your pile of data increases.

Some solutions that provide a great deal of organizational control sacrifice efficiency to create it. If your system becomes unresponsive your personnel will quit using it and your investment will not pay off. Similarly, make sure it has a good way of reconciling duplicate subjects, names, or contexts.

As you begin to integrate your solution, you must do some planning and generate some rules, before you configure your system. In short, you will need to determine by what contexts you will classify the knowledge you wish to capture so that you will be able to easily search for and find it.

Here is a warning. No matter how carefully you plan your configuration, as you begin to use your system you will learn or discover a better way and you will inevitably want to make some adjustments to your configuration, your data labels, categories, and your rules. Don’t fight it just be prepared to deal with it.

When it comes to the behavioral change, you will need to do some more planning and then a great deal of training, mentoring, monitoring, and enforcement to drive the behaviors of both installing knowledge into the system and extracting knowledge out of it. The art of driving this kind of behavioral change is deserving of an entire book, however, here are a few simple suggestions to give you food for thought.

You must make some rules or otherwise set some expectations to promote and enable the use of your knowledge capture system. Here are some suggestions, though you will need to gage for yourself what constitutes too much or too little discipline.

  • Every technological research or experiment finding or conclusion should be captured.
  • Every design concept, regardless of how well it satisfied, should be captured.
  • Conclusions or findings from prototype or product testing should be captured.
  • Recommendations from manufacturing or suppliers concerning how to optimize designs for manufacture should be captured.
  • The system should be queried during every concept development phase of any project.
  • At your design reviews, insist on comparing concepts or solutions against ideas already existing in the knowledge capture system (this ensures that design teams are comparing ideas long before the review).
  • Findings from competitive teardowns or patent searches should be captured.
  • Concept CAD models or prototypes should be preserved if space allows.

When it comes to organizing your captured knowledge, you must have some rules about labeling each piece of information so it can be found when it’s valuable again. Keep in mind that human recollection will not be a factor, so you must assume that the searcher will not know what the subject is called when searching for it.

There is no magic formula for how to label and organize your knowledge, but here are a few thoughts to get you started. For product design elements in particular, be sure that each one is given at least one label for each category of your database organization.

For example, give it a label based on the product line it was developed under (in case someone does remember the discovery or in case someone seeks solutions based on relevant similarity). Give it a label based on the technology incorporated such as Metal Injection Molding, Stepper Motor, Linear Actuator, Planetary Gear, etc. Give it a label in terms of the problem(s) it addresses such as, noise reduction, magnetic interference, or increased force in less space.

Finally, make a habit of talking with the users of your knowledge capture system frequently. Ask what is working and what is not. Recognize that you won’t be able to satisfy everyone, but try to help the majority with continuous adjustments and improvements. Also, the frequent communication will both set an expectation that the system be used, and will also provide some insight into how much use it gets.

Be prepared for the behavioral adjustment and the refinement of your knowledge capture methods to take months or years to settle in. The more knowledge creation and re-use activity you generate, the faster the process will go. Just be aware that it is a learning process and a behavioral change, and it will take work and time.

Re-learning something that you already knew is terribly wasteful. Research and development is already expensive enough without unnecessary repeats, so justifying the expense of a knowledge capture system is usually fairly simple. Integrating the system and developing the discipline and method to make it work well for you is not simple.

By all means make the effort and the investment to develop a knowledge capture system. Just plan ahead and be prepared for the effort of teaching yourself and your organization how to make it work effectively. It takes work and time, but the pay-off can be substantial. If you need convincing, just think back to your own experience and how much work was wasted rediscovering what you already knew.

Stay wise, friends.