Sunday, January 25, 2009

Capturing Knowledge That Makes the Company Great by Robert Hyde

As the Cold War generation retires from the defense industry, companies in this sector are struggling to replace these personnel with a shrinking pool of qualified professionals. Northrop Grumman has turned to knowledge transfer as a means for growing tomorrow's leaders.


The concept of knowledge transfer is taking on new importance throughout the defense industry. That industry is faced with a demographic profile that had its foundation during the 1960s portion of the Cold War. It developed the world's best technical workforce in a society in which engineering was an occupation of choice and our public education systems had the rigor to develop tens of thousands who understood, learned and applied the math and science skills needed to be successful engineers.

That workforce is now retiring and the pipeline of talented replacements has shrunk considerably. All of the above are realities forcing the defense industry to understand that knowledge transfer isn't just another consultant-generated fad or cutting-edge buzzword. Survival - and, by extension, the qualitative edge the industry provides the American defense establishment - is reliant on successful knowledge transfer.

The Northrop Grumman Story

For Northrop Grumman Marine Systems, which employed more than 2,000 during the peak of the Cold War, the final victory was symbolized with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the crumbling of Soviet Communism and the Westernization of the Eastern Bloc.

All of those events, however, resulted in tens of billions of dollars in canceled defense contracts and a flattening of defense spending on development programs and weapons systems production. It was the peace "dividend," which meant reducing the workforce from approximately 2,500 to about 1,000. Business wasn't expanding, few new employees were hired and attrition was limited to retirement.

Fast-forward to today and Cold War-era systems need replacement, business is better, employment is growing, and the generation that won the Cold War is retiring in droves.

Northrop Grumman Marine Systems owns the intellectual property that makes one of its products singular in the world. It helps deliver the absolute reliability of a key strategic weapons system. This technology, which has never failed even a single test during decades of deployment, is the brain child of a key and indispensable engineer who has nurtured, fine-tuned and mastered this technology.

The problem is that this engineer has decades of accumulated "institutional" and "tribal" knowledge bouncing around in his head. He is planning to retire. In response, the business hired a brilliant engineer to serve as a protege for several years and learn from the master. That was a plan right up until the moment the protege accepted her "dream job" at NASA. Lesson learned: Don't put all of your eggs in one basket.

The case above demonstrated a key flaw over and above having "all of your eggs in one basket." Where were the lessons? How can they be replicated? What gets taught first? These and other questions plagued the management team. The result was a documented process and management commitment.

The leadership team quickly understood that to succeed, the organization needed a plan that standardized the process and removed the guesswork of ad-hoc learning. That plan and the lessons inherent in it had to be documented and shared with more than a single protege. Lessons are now prepared, reviewed by contemporaries of the knowledge holder and the management team and presented in a classroom in Socratic fashion.

Starting with the basics, the senior technologist presents the technical road map intertwined with that invaluable lifetime experience. "Here's what the book says, and here's what I've found out about this that isn't in the book," is the key to passing on the unique knowledge and keeping the interest level of the learners high.

The foundational sessions are presented to a group of learners that represents varying levels of experience. A veteran should be included along with newer high-potential employees and those others who need the knowledge to better accomplish their jobs. That veteran will help with organizational knowledge and has his or her own set of experiences to impart. Along with each learning session, job assignments and projects are assigned so the learners, the master and the management team can be confident that the concept is being imparted.

As the lessons progress, they get more detailed and specialized. With the input of the knowledge-holder and management team, the larger group branches out toward those aspects that best fit their skills, abilities and interests.

If there are any prodigies in the group, they will keep up with multiple branches of the lessons. These lessons are presented at intervals of three to four weeks. In the intervening periods, the project assignments are prepared in consultation with the knowledge-holder and in collaboration the entire team of learners.

At the right times, independent projects are assigned so the learner can demonstrate competency in an aspect of the knowledge. To spread the advantages, other interested engineers and technologists who can benefit from the entire process are invited. Managers debrief the senior technologist and the learners in individual sessions every 60 days. Progress is measured and reviewed, and necessary adjustments are made.

To summarize some of the key lessons learned:

  1. Management must allow the senior technologist to have the dual role of contributor and teacher. Time and workload have to be carefully managed to make that work.
  2. It doesn't work without budget and allocated time.
  3. Keeping critical skills is the organization's highest priority. Without them, it is like every other organization. Remember that when weighing priorities.
  4. Impart the knowledge to groups, and don't hesitate to have the body of knowledge branch out into more discrete paths.
  5. Learned skills must be exercised, and learners have to develop their own lessons learned.
  6. Measure results and reward success. This process shouldn't be a burden; it should be an opportunity.

In summary, because there was a plan, a road map, frequent review and adequate documentation, the process not only succeeded, but could be replicated. The business is stronger because of it. Instead of a sense of dread regarding retirement of the senior levels of the workforce, this is seen as an opportunity to grow tomorrow's key contributors.


The U.S. defense establishment is faced with a wholesale passing of the baton from the Cold War generation. The legacy of that generation can be preserved. It's neither cheap nor easy, but it is imperative if the defense industry is to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders and keep the United States and its Armed Forces personnel safe.

[About the Author: Robert Hyde is director of human resources at Northrop Grummans's Marine Systems business.]

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