Weaving Your Way to Critical Knowledge Loss

Recently, on vacation in Perugia, Italy, I came across the fantastic hand-weaving workshop of Giuditta Brozzetti. This wonderful museum of fine textiles just screamed “lost knowledge ” to me. The struggles of these Italian artisans can help you think about strategies for sustaining critical capabilities in your organization.

Does your organization have skills that are no longer feasible to replicate? Weavers in Perugia – and unlucky managers in many businesses – face painful dilemmas of losing skills and knowledge that have been built up through years of experience. In this situation, leaders have five options for dealing with critical knowledge loss.

Which one will you use?


The Lost Art of Transferring Skills

First, a little more about this hand-weaving workshop. The history of weaving in the Umbrian region of Italy goes back to the Middle Ages when Perugia tablecloths regularly appeared in paintings of famous artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Giotto.

Today, Marta Cucchia continues her great grandmother’s efforts to preserve this antique weaving tradition, reinterpreting Italian medieval and renaissance textiles.

But sitting at a manual loom, sending a shuttle back and forth through taught strings and pulling a wood bar toward you hour after hour is painstaking, low-paying work.

As a result, Cucchia says this ancient craft will disappear in a few years because the knowledge is not economically viable and is too difficult to pass on to a new generation.  Recently, one of Cucchia’s ancient looms stopped working for some unknown reason. It took her weeks to research, diagnose and fix the problem, which involved turning just one screw. Talk about maintenance headaches!

Of course, craft knowledge like this has always been vulnerable to technology advances and economic viability. But increasingly complex organizations and technologies, combined with more turnover in jobs, makes the problem of knowledge loss more common, acute and costly than in the past.

Here are five options when it comes to transferring extensive, experiential knowledge for a critical task or role:

1. Hire a promising apprentice and invest in a lengthy training process

Boston Scientific did this when they needed a new generation of machine operators to learn high tech knitting, weaving and yarn texturizing skills necessary to produce highly engineered surgical grafts and fabrics that are used to treat vascular disease. Recognizing that this business was at risk of losing expertise acquired over decades of working with intricate machines, management identified four apprentices to begin training under their veteran craftsmen. 

This meant increasing labor and training costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars for new employees who would not be productive for some time. But this investment was more than offset by the millions of dollars of future revenues at risk if those essential skills were not transferred before key people retired.

2. Outsource the task/role to other organizations

This option to preserve access to complex skills has been popular in IT functions. It shifts responsibility for sustaining key competencies to outside vendors. Sometimes this solution makes a lot of sense. But there is a risk that your organization will over time lose the capacity to judge the competence of your vendor. Also it makes you vulnerable to your vendor’s talent management capabilities.

3. Replace the person with technology or deskill the role so someone with less training can do it.

The shortage of welders in industrial settings has made the case for investing in robotic welding technologies much more compelling. Increasingly, management in the manufacturing sector is looking at automation as the most viable solution for ongoing skill shortages in key production areas.

4. Sell or close the parts of the business directly impacted by lost knowledge

Some businesses have no choice but to shut down specific operations because they have lost key capabilities. This is the likely outcome for weavers in Perugia. It just doesn’t seem economically viable to sustain the business and younger people simply don’t want to do this difficult work. The bottom line is hand weaving on antique looms is too costly and physically demanding to pass the business on.

Back in the states, the president of a metal fabricator told me he would lose the ability to bid on $600,000 worth of work annually when a particular 69-year old mechanical press operator finally retired. This employee of 30 years had unique experiential knowledge needed to take on particularly profitable work. The company assumed they could never replace this worker’s capabilities.

5. Rehire the retiree as a contractor

Sometimes a veteran retiree with unique, irreplaceable knowledge is willing to return to work as a contractor. This happened in a California nuclear power plant where a retired engineer continued to work at the plant two days a week, so the utility could benefit from his essential technical know how.

Of course, this only temporarily postpones the inevitable. But it may be enough to buy time needed to find an outsourcing or new technology solution, or to get a successor trained.

Do you have costly knowledge gaps looming in your business? Many executives are in denial about the looming loss of unique expertise. Fortunately, sometimes these capabilities turn out to be easier to replace than expected. But in other situations, like the ones facing weavers in Perugia,  there may be no easy solution. In the majority of cases, the longer you wait, the fewer options you will have. Don't wait until you're out of options.