Knowledge Management (KM) Among Engineers

The baby boomers’ ability to transfer their rich engineering savvy (e.g. tacit knowledge) accumulated over the past decades becomes critical as baby boomers retire and today’s smaller-sized generations move into and lead the workforce. This is true across the defense industry and is particularly acute in Navy maintenance and technical organizations. At a recent KM conference, Dr. Jerry Blanton (jerry.blanton@ngc.com) was referred to Dr. Debby McNichols’ dissertation on Tacit Knowledge: An Examination of Intergenerational Knowledge Transfer Within An Aerospace Engineering Community.  Dr. Blanton obtained a copy of Dr. McNichols’ 2008 research.  Her dissertation compared tacit knowledge transfer between post-WWII baby boomers and Generation X, born between 1965 and 1976. In a recent email to the Carrier Team One Community, Dr. Blanton reminds us that as a technical community, we should reflect on Dr. McNichols’ findings and what they mean for us.

Baby boomer panelists (used for dissertation research) emphasized the following themes:

(a) “their passion and personal commitment to share knowledge” (McNichols, p.154).  One panelist noted that engineers like to build stuff and are willing to show “neophytes how they pulled it off” (p. 155).  However, boomers also wanted younger engineers to show respect for a boomer’s years of experience.

(b)  Baby boomers believed management generates barriers to knowledge transfer.  Knowledge transfer was not a formally recognized program and was left up to individual engineers.  Engineering tacit knowledge is experience based and best exchanged by doing; but engineers were not allocated the time and funding to transfer knowledge.

While both generations did not view generation differences as a barrier to knowledge transfer, both displayed attitudes that impacted their ability to send and receive knowledge.

Generation X engineers also identified two major themes in response to questionnaires:

(a) Knowledge transfer depended on the relationship between the sender and receiver—open and effective communications were essential, along with a desired to be in close proximity for effective knowledge transfer.  Generation X engineers felt technology could not replace close proximity.  Generation X engineers also perceived baby boomers as insecure and unwilling to share knowledge.

(b) Environmental conditions facilitated knowledge transfer.  Generation Xers stated a team environment enhanced knowledge transfer.  Engineers from both generations agreed that management’s focus on near-term financial results impeded knowledge transfer which must be a recognized priority.

Dr. McNichols proposed strategies to enhance intergenerational knowledge transfer:  (a) pairing junior and senior engineers, (b) mentoring, (c ) teamwork, (d) communications, (e) technology, (f) geographic proximity, (g) mutual trust and respect between sender and receiver, and (h) management involvement and support (p. 167).

So, what does this mean to CT1 and Navy maintenance? Our boomers are also retiring and must make an effort to pass tacit knowledge to younger generations—even if at times some appropriate level of respect may be missing.  Second, personal face-to-face relationships enhance knowledge transfer and we should embrace “close proximity” opportunities when we can.  Equally important, experiential, “hands-on” knowledge sharing is critical to tacit (engineering) knowledge exchange.

See also my notes from Gary Klein's "Intuition at Work" (retitled "The Power of Intuition" in the paperback edition) here (path: Files Available for Download\ Junior Engineering Duty Officer Guides\Skill - Building Intuition.doc), especially the notes on Getting Coached.