Fighting knowledge loss (part 1): the three causes

  • 23 November 2022
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Fighting knowledge loss (part 1): the three causes
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You spend a lot of time maintaining your plant. What about your knowledge?


A key team member leaves. 

A log is filled out incorrectly.

A helpful tip is never recorded. 


In any of these scenarios, the end result is the same—valuable knowledge is lost.


Tacit knowledge is particularly vulnerable to being lost. It’s the often unspoken and undocumented know-how gained from doing the same work in the same place for a long time. It can’t be bought and it can’t be faked. 

Tacit knowledge is the mechanic who can tell when the oil in a lube pump needs changing just from the smell, or the feel of it between their fingers. It’s the technician who can tell you what’s happening inside a machine just by listening to the vibrations. Or that one team member who knows where every odd part is stored. Maybe you recognize yourself in one of these examples.

Tacit knowledge takes years, even decades, to build up–but it can be lost in an instant. With record-breaking rates of employee turnover, cybersecurity threats, and an entire generation of workers about to retire, knowledge retention is more important than ever. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Knowledge Management, “knowledge loss is perhaps the greatest corporate risk facing organizations today.”

Even something as simple as vacation time can be a source of stress and headache when critical knowledge isn’t shared. If team members aren’t cross-trained, you miss out on the added flexibility that comes with having multiple employees that can step in to complete a job. In part one of this two-part series, I’ll share 3 reasons why maintenance teams lose knowledge. Next week, we’ll take a look at how you can fight back.


The three causes of knowledge loss


Knowledge loss can happen in a variety of different ways, but there are a few common culprits you shouldn’t ignore.


Employee turnover

Voluntary employee turnover is expected to jump 20% by the end of 2022, according to a report by Gartner. Retirement rates are accelerating across the country as well. In other words, there are millions more people quitting their job this year than last. And since the loss of even a single team key member can spell disaster for an organization, these statistics should be some cause for concern.

I spoke with Kathir Haran (P.Eng, MBA), a Fiix Solutions Engineer with over 10 years years of industry experience, to get some perspective on these stats. When someone leaves a role, Kathir said, “all that knowledge and skill walks out the door.” And the solution is rarely simple. “Companies that are unprepared for turnover are often left with huge gaps they can’t fill by hiring or training people.”


Weak Processes

Maintenance teams produce a lot of data: work orders, repair logs, purchase orders, and more. All that data needs to go somewhere, and any time there’s data to be stored, there’s the potential threat of knowledge loss. 

For teams just starting out on their maintenance journeys, simply storing this data in the first place can be a challenge. For example, are repair logs being filled out? Are spare parts inventories being updated? For teams a little further along on their maintenance journeys, the question is less about if the data is being stored, and more about what is being stored. A team storing redundant, outdated, or trivial information (ROT for short) may be lulled into a false sense of security by their low-quality data. Information logged in multiple or conflicting ways (such as when one technician measures time in minutes and another uses hours) makes it difficult or even impossible to consolidate data. 

Whatever the specific cause, a lack of clear guidelines and enforcement around what constitutes useful data–and the best way to store that data–are the main drivers of knowledge loss here.


Bad Culture

By definition, tacit knowledge is undocumented. It has to be captured, which means it has to be shared. But have you considered what incentives or deterrents your team has when it comes to sharing their hard-won knowledge? 

“You have certain employees who are not willing to share their information because of job security,” says Kathir. An employee may hold their cards close to the chest, fearing that if they share their valuable knowledge, they become that much easier to replace. 

While every team member has a role to play in preventing knowledge loss, from technician to CEO, the threat of knowledge loss stemming from bad culture is a threat that leaders in particular are in a position to combat. The push to transform your company culture from one of fear and job insecurity to one of sharing and openness has to start from the very top. But more on that in next week’s follow-up,



Maintaining your knowledge is just as important as maintaining the assets within your plants. Awareness of both the value of your tacit knowledge and the common ways it can be lost has already put you on the path to prevention. In our next article, I’ll share four strategies for fighting back against knowledge loss. 


What does tacit knowledge look like within your team? Have you experienced any of these causes of knowledge loss?


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