An estimated 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day*, with a substantial proportion of that figure comprising workers in heavy-asset industries like Oil & Gas and Transportation. As a result, organizations ranging from aerospace firms to gas suppliers are suddenly grappling with the same basic problem: how do we transfer decades of accumulated know-how, or tribal knowledge, from the retiring generation to the new one?

It’s a nearly ubiquitous problem. Every company has at least a few employees with a trick or two up their sleeves—some unique method for coaxing a temperamental generator into starting. Unfortunately, those tricks are rarely documented in any systematic way.  

“A lot of the guys who have been in the field for many years may do things that are in the gray zone of what they're allowed to do or what they're supposed to do. They might actually literally kick a generator because that will make it work,” said Fred Schults,Principal Architect at GE. “People created their own work processes locally in the absence of technology… and they would write things by hand because it was efficient and safe.”

Today, technology called APM (asset performance management) helps operators catalog these processes for future workers. APM is a breed of software that draws analytics directly from machines to create a sophisticated framework for how and when to do maintenance, in turn improving efficiency and reducing unplanned downtime.

APM is a breed of software that draws analytics directly from machines to create a sophisticated framework for how and when to do maintenance, in turn improving efficiency and reducing unplanned downtime.

In addressing the tribal knowledge problem, APM is transforming the siloed work culture that helped create it. A single organization might have a dozen separate divisions all keeping records in a different system. Some workers might be using a MicrosoftAccess® database, while others are using ERP, for example. None of the systems are interoperable, so none of the data is easily shareable. This makes it difficult not only for new workers to access historical data, but for any workers to access any data.

“If I'm working on a gas pipeline, I’ll have some stuff in AutoCad® that I need to print out so I can use it in the field,” Schults explained. “My assets are
maintained into my ERP. My work instructions have to be printed out. I also have my safety tailboard and instructions that comes from a different system.” 

APM allows for all of this disparate information to exist in a single location, providing workers a single point of access for the data and tools they need to get the job done.

While the informal processes workers deployed in lieu of an APM solution were good enough for a long time, this is no longer the case. Back then, operators didn’t worry about logging data because the regulations requiring them to do so didn’t exist yet. They didn’t worry about documenting processes because the workers who’d been performing them for the previous 20 years would probably be around for the next 15. But fast forward a few decades, and regulations are changing, and huge numbers of baby boomers are set to retire in the very short term.

This presents a knowledge drain so severe that companies are turning to consultants to interview their outgoing employees and glean valuable information, but it’s a process that’s neither comprehensive nor cost effective. The difference between what a person says in an interview and what they actually do in the field can be stark. Consequently,more and more companies are utilizing APM software to capture workers’ actions and processes directly. Rather than pulling technicians out of the field for days at a time to pick their brains, workers simply log their actions into APM, which automatically tracks the result.

Fundamentally, the tribal knowledge problem boils down to a lack of system integration.APM finally enables organizations to capture and catalog critical knowledge through a single, holistic offering that facilitates and standardizes data traceability and access.

Source: AARP

About the author

David Ovadia

APM Product Marketing Director, GE Digital

David leads Product Marketing for our Asset Performance Management suite (APM) for Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), Food and Beverage & Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG).  His experience spans brand management, marketing, and product management for consumer, SMB, and enterprise software.