Using Knowledge Engineering to Preserve Corporate Memory
Gary A. Klein
Expertise is a key resource in any organization, but it is usually not treated with the same care as other resources. Few organizations have any methods for preserving or expanding their experience, or even taking stock of their current expertise. In contrast, other corporate resources, such as financial assets and equipment, are monitored with great attention. Ironically, many corporations are proud of their experience. They boast of "being in business for over 75 years." But if you enter their offices you may have trouble finding anyone who has worked in the same job more than 2 or 3 years. When staff members retire, the organization does little to preserve their expertise; if an exit interview is performed it is usually directed at learning how the person feels about the job and the organization, rather than trying to elicit the accumulated tricks of the trade. Supervisors acknowledge the person's expertise through a small party or a gift, perhaps a plaque.
Because most organizations do not really understand how to value their own expertise, they tend to lose it. They fail to develop a workable corporate memory. The result is that they repeat errors because they fail to take advantage of lessons learned. The thesis of this article is that organizational experience is a resource to be managed, akin to cash, equipment, goodwill, and inventory. Imagine the outrage you would feel if your organization decided to upgrade to a new computer system and all your software files became unusable. Yet if the head of the computer department retires or leaves, the discussion centers on who will be the replacement. This article will examine expertise as a resource that can be identified, valued, and preserved. Knowledge engineering is the activity of finding, eliciting, and applying expertise.
First, I will examine the nature of expertise. Then the strategy of "bottling" expertise, as in expert systems, will be described, followed by a more general look at what it means to engineer knowledge. Knowledge engineering will be defined as a broad domain that subsumes intelligent system development. Finally, some low-technology applications of knowledge engineering will be presented, including technology transfer and training.
What is expertise? A simple answer would be that expertise is the growth of knowledge and skills through experience. It may be more helpful, however, to look at some of the specific aspects of expertise anchored within a concrete domain. One domain with which I am familiar is urban fire fighting ( Klein, Calderwood, & Clinton-Cirocco, 1986), so the following discussion will contrast the expertise of a rookie fire fighter with that of an experienced fireground commander.
The rookie tries to learn the basic procedures. One fire fighter told us about his first