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NRC ‘knowledge center' helps younger employees benefit from experts' experience

Aug. 29, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
Nuclear Regulatory Commission employees meet over pizza with Jack Rosenthal, a retired NRC risk assessment expert with 32 years of experience.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission employees meet over pizza with Jack Rosenthal, a retired NRC risk assessment expert with 32 years of experience. ()

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last fall began identifying hundreds of employees with expertise it deems too valuable to lose.

It captures that expertise by a variety of means recorded presentations and interviews, collected documents for posting on the online NRC Knowledge Center. Veteran employees also connect with staff through mentor programs, job shadowing and brown-bag lunches.

"The workforce today doesn't have the 30 years of experience in licensing and inspecting nuclear power plants," said Patricia Eng, NRC's senior adviser for knowledge management. "In 2009, 50 percent of the NRC staff had been with us for less than five years," which created a "huge training issue," she said.

The Knowledge Center was created to tackle that issue.

Open only to NRC employees and contractors, the Web portal operates like GovLoop, a social networking site for workers and contractors governmentwide. There are virtual communities of practice, based on profession and skill set, where members can post questions and answers, documents and videos that are permanently stored and available for view. The information is tagged with keywords and phrases to make it searchable. Members are alerted of new posts via email but will soon be able to subscribe to RSS feeds.

Experts are strongly encouraged to join these communities "so that 30-year veteran, who has just a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge and experience, can pass down that knowledge," said Jody Hudson, NRC's chief learning officer.

Other agencies including the FBI, Army Corps of Engineers and NASA also have found value in knowledge management practices to retain expertise and make information more accessible.

NRC senior managers were prompted by a need to address recruitment, training and knowledge management issues. They identified about 285 experts nearing retirement and others with few experienced workers to someday replace them in such fields as power plant construction inspection and fire protection.

"That information that is in short supply that is walking out the door, we call this high-risk, high-value knowledge," Hudson said.

NRC estimates it loses 4,000 work years of experience every year through attrition and retirement.

By making information readily available through the Knowledge Center, NRC estimates it saved $37 million between October 2009 and September 2010, Eng said. Having communities of practice for new inspectors and providing links to training resources, for example, has decreased the time it takes a new employee to pass his oral board by six months, down to a year and a half. Those employees are able to work on their own sooner as opposed to being paired with more experienced workers.

"Knowledge should be made available to anybody who might need it," Eng said. "Anytime you set up stovepipes you're really shooting yourself in the foot."

Whether its advice on a good hotel in Atlanta or a query for French-speaking nuclear engineers at a certain plant, "nobody can anticipate who will need what, when," she said.

Sharing employee knowledge is critical at NRC, considering the agency's workforce has grown by more than 30 percent over the last six years from 3,059 to 4,000 workers.

Overcoming cultural challenges

Louis Andre, former chief of staff at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said employees have to refute the belief "that knowledge is power and unshared knowledge equals unshared power."

"You can put in place the tools [and] infrastructure that allows rapid capture and transfer of knowledge, but what it really comes down to is organization culture," and agency leaders must support development of knowledge management initiatives, said Andre, now a senior vice president for intelligence business strategies at CACI.

Leaders must not only say they value knowledge sharing or continuous learning, they must reward behaviors that reflect those values, Andre said.

Other initiatives

Creating strong knowledge management practices and accompanying information technology investments has long been a concern at the Army Corps of Engineers, said Robert Kazimer, chief information officer and director of corporate information.

At a leadership conference earlier this month, the Corps unveiled a prototype it is testing that would operate much like the NRC Knowledge Center.

Rather than having "continuity books" with binders full of standards, operating procedures and examples of past mission projects, that resource would be available online. Currently, the Corps doesn't gather and store information in a centralized location.

"The next phase of budgets will be increasing pressure overall on the command, so knowledge management skills are going to be ever more essential," Kazimer said.

He said leadership has endorsed a new chief knowledge officer position that will report to the CIO. The need for a CKO has been validated, but Kazimer is awaiting authority to budget for the position. That person would be responsible for coordinating knowledge management activities and best practices.

The FBI has had a CKO for the past four years, and its knowledge office has grown from less than a handful of employees at its inception to a current high of 16 workers.

CKO Clayton Grigg says he prefers working with a small staff, which equates to one knowledge management staffer for every 2,000 employees.

This year, the agency launched its first knowledge awards program to recognize innovative employees who have saved money and time by improving knowledge management.

By Oct. 1, Grigg hopes to deploy an expert locator tool that will reduce the time and effort it takes employees to locate colleagues with a certain expertise.

"Every one of our employees are knowledge workers," Grigg said. That agent who came back from a search warrant is doing knowledge management." The goal is to begin capturing that expertise "on day zero."

To meet the demands of younger feds, NASA's Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership began posting its forums in Apple's iTunes store two months ago, said Director Ed Hoffman. Within the first three weeks, the posts had more than 58,000 hits because the content was available from anywhere at anytime long after the forums ended, Hoffman said.

"Knowledge and information today are critical assets for organizations" and should be valued like personnel and financial assets, said Neil Olonoff, who co-chairs the Federal Knowledge Management Working Group. The group, composed of more than 600 federal and private-sector workers, has pushed for creation of a federal CKO position to establish a repository of govermentwide best practices, but the idea hasn't gotten far with Congress or the White House.

"We need to have a central place," Olonoff said. "KM is too important a resource to be haphazard within the federal government."

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