Re: How knowledge is lost over time

Subject: Re: How knowledge is lost over time
From: Ned Bedinger <ned -at- EDWORD -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 29 Jun 1999 23:49:31 -0700

> Gosh yes, that is THE classic modern problem. I hope it is ok to discuss
> this in the abstract on techwr-l, since it is such a central theme but not
> one that I can cite for studies or quote from known laws that can guide
> instructional designers.

The question of how skills are diminished through disuse after learning is
probably in the domain of learning and cognition, something you could expose in
a couple of good years with a real grad faculty. Serendipity might smile on
you if you just persue "learning" in the card catalog.

> Beyond the strictly academic and precise study of it, there is the very icon
> of it: the Dark Ages. They were a bottomless pit into which countless
> technologies fell or were hurled and there languished moribund or worse.
> (The Romans were masters of concrete, but that technology disappeared for
> over 500 years, thanks to Aleric and his Goths, who remain handy for
> scapegoats). A guy I knew at Boeing, who had a penchant for quirky
> aeronautical facts, said that the knowledge necessary to build a Saturn V
> space vehicle died with the generation that pioneered rocketry (Von Braun and
> dose guys). The Saturn V was the rocket they used to launch moon shots,
> among other things, and NASA hasn't been able to build one for decades.
> Obviously, the fabrication tools and skillsets alone (leaving out the
> specific engineering work) needed to create such a gigantic rocket would be
> mind-boggling under the most favorable circumstances, but apparently the
> original undertaking was simply too complex to document--big chunks of it
> remained in the heads of the rocket scientists. And of course, mass
> storage and video media weren't as durable or available 30 years ago, so
> maybe we'd have a better chance at re-learning something so complex if we
> documented it with today's tools.

But no, I do not know of any studies done. The topic is so central to work and
knowledge that it just seems to be a certainty, unimpeachable, above study.
Whoa, that's a sure sign it needs study.

I've always framed it as the problem of 'institutional memory', not sure if
that term is the product of my own verbaforming or perhaps something I got out
of an appropriate technology manual in the US Peace Corps. Try it as a keyword
in online searches, there may be something to it.

Every time I finish a contract, I spend a day or two before I leave,
documenting my work, with readme files of filenames and file descriptions,
collections of source material, even interview notes, bug reports, data
descriptions, everything I can find to make a starting place for the next
person when they work on the next version. This is institutional memory at
work in the contractor universe, where information oughta be as handy as it is
on the web. I <i>always</i> wonder how a company can afford to bring on
contractors and then lose the expertise and experience they represent (your
attrition model fits this). But on a brighter note, that is why we get to
debrief as many SMEs as we do, and document their knowledge. We're the front
line of defense against institutional memory loss.

Please include me in any offline discussion about this.

> Ned Bedinger

ned -at- edword -dot- com

> -------------

> \Date: Tue, 29 Jun 1999 17:11:40 -0400
> \From: Frances Campbell <frances -dot- campbell -at- CGI -dot- CA>
> \Subject: How knowledge is lost over time
> \MIME-Version: 1.0
> \Content-Type: multipart/mixed;
> boundary="------------\844D4140AECCFCE71D6FC5F6"
> \
> \I am looking for any statistics or studies on how knowledge of a
> \computer application or business process is lost over time. This loss
> \of knowledge might occur for several reasons, including: lack of
> \practice by employees, lag time between training and application, lack
> \of documentation, employee attrition or change-over.

> \Any suggestions?
> \
> \Thanks.

Edward Bedinger
Edword Technical Communications Co.
Seattle, WA

If this were merely my opinion, I'd probably keep it to myself.
My employer is not responsible for my expressions.


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