Digital tools help water utilities address knowledge loss

Third Knowledge Exchange Meeting of the Hydroinformatics Platform zooms in on the preservation of implicit knowledge

What happens if several experienced colleagues leave the organisation? How can you prevent this from creating problems resulting from the loss of knowledge? The conduct of a knowledge scan, or the creation of knowledge cards, could possibly play a part, along with the development of decision support systems (DSS). Thoughts were shared on these matters during the Knowledge Exchange Meeting of the Hydroinformatics Platform on September 8. The use of critical knowledge, and setting up collaborations for knowledge sharing, were important elements of the discussion.

A great deal of knowledge about the water system is locked up in the heads of employees who have many years’ experience in the sector. There is a risk that this knowhow and latent knowledge will be lost, now that many of these individuals are reaching retirement age. At the same time, younger employees tend to stay with the same employer for a shorter period of time than used to be the case. These workers have to acquire the expertise they need more quickly. Both developments present water utilities with the challenge of preserving the built-up knowledge for the organisation and of effectively transmitting it to new employees. How hydroinformatics can help address these issues was at the centre of the discussions during this year’s third knowledge exchange meeting. The emphasis was on the unlocking of knowledge and the application of digital tools to support decision-making. Contributions were made by the Stichting Wateropleidingen (Foundation for Water Education) and the ICT4WATER platform.

Use of critical knowledge

The first step in avoiding the loss of knowledge, is to clearly establish what knowledge is present and determine what parts of it are important for the organisation to preserve. The methods used by the Stichting Wateropleidingen were explained by Angela Roerdink and Mark van Dodeweerd. They noted that explicit knowledge, such as knowledge sources, are easy to document in protocols and work processes. It is the implicit knowledge – that is, the personal experience and skills, and the employees’ networks – that call for an entirely new approach. Naturally, new people can be coached by experienced colleagues as a means of transferring such knowledge. But this is not always possible.

Knowledge scan

A knowledge scan makes use of interviews with employees from the whole organisation, to review what explicit and implicit knowledge is present in the different domains. The point is to acquire a total picture of the organisation as a whole, not to assess individual staff members.  Janine Leeuwis of Royal HaskoningDHV talked about the wide implementation of the knowledge scan at Dutch municipalities and at RIONED. The scan is often followed by concrete actions aimed a better safeguarding knowledge or, when necessary, at reinforcing it – for example, through the organisation of a workshop or the hiring of new staff members with particular expertise.

Knowledge card

A second tool that was explained is the knowledge card (see figure): a document that is compiled together with a departing employee. The knowledge card contains the details of the individual’s tasks, including the associated knowledge sources, as well as important tips related to the execution of a task (implicit knowledge), but also the network of the colleague who is leaving the water utility.

The knowledge scan and the knowledge card are both valuable tools to enable the preservation and use of an organisation’s critical knowledge.

The knowledge card concept.

ICT4WATER cluster

Another means of sharing knowledge involves inter-organisational collaboration. One example is the ICT4WATER cluster, which was presented to the meeting’s participants by KWR’s Joep van den Broeke. ICT4WATER is a collaboration of research projects at the interface of digital technology and water; it was established by the European Commission, which funds these projects. The fifty-plus members of ICT4WATER focus on sharing knowledge and experience in areas such as standardisation, interoperability of systems, smart water and cybersecurity. They also prepare advisory notes for the European Commission on developments related to the digital domain and water, and thus contribute to policy formulation in Brussels.

Decision support systems

One of the actions taken by ICT4WATER was to examine the developments in the area of decision support systems (DSS). Vasileia Vasilaki, of Brunel University in London, talked about the insights produced by this study. It is apparent that the development of DSS in the examined projects is concentrated primarily on the operational management of water treatment processes, source protection and distribution. Typically, this involves pre-commercial research, which means that although the developed DSS is being used in the project, it by no means always culminates in a mature, widely available product. There are many reasons for this. For instance, in many projects not all the partners in the cycle – from end-user to technology provider – are involved in the development from the very outset. Moreover, in practice, having access to data of sufficient quality for an operational application, is often more difficult than had been anticipated. Participants in the meeting recognised this problem, because it also arises very often in the projects of the Hydroinformatics theme group.

Combining solutions

This meeting’s presentations and follow-up discussions showed that there is no single solution for the safeguarding of knowledge within an organisation. To begin with, it is important to know what knowledge is present and what parts of it are essential to operational management. The safeguarding can be done in a variety of ways, ranging from the very pragmatic to the technically advanced, as in the use of models that provide input to decision support systems. With regard to implicit knowledge, it should be pointed out that the experiences and skills involved can only be passed on in part. It is essential that the new employees also develop experience themselves, and that they be given the tools they need to go through this learning process more quickly and efficiently than they could have in the past.