When I first began writing this column, it forced me to create an idea folder. Many outsiders don't realize this, but every self-respecting journalist keeps an idea folder for those “dull moments.” These times are instances when you simply can't seem to conjure up a single interesting idea, so you go to the idea folder where you stored topics that seemed informative or relevant when you spotted them.

I read the Wall Street Journal regularly and, on Jan. 23, I spotted a story by Scott Thurm entitled “Companies Struggle To Pass On Knowledge That Workers Acquire.”

The gist of the article is that all workers gain knowledge on the job, either from experience or directly from the advice of fellow employees. That knowledge usually helps the employee do their job better, which means it is completed in a timelier, less costly fashion.

Thurm begins his article asking a package carrier whether it made more sense to start at the top and work downwards with deliveries or vice versa. “It depends on the time of day,” is the reply the delivery person offered.

Now that is an interesting tidbit which I certainly never considered, nor do I know what role the time of day plays in the decision of which place to start my deliveries: top or bottom.

The rest of Thurm's article deals with how companies and experts view the issue of how to acquire knowledge that workers gain and then, presumably, pass it on to fellow employees and new hires. I read Thurm's article and thought: Now that's a column for my magazine. Gaining, keeping and passing on knowledge is a never-ending but critically important task.

A few observations about knowledge in the workforce:

  • Read it. Most instructions are poorly written. That's not so bad if you're in the editorial business because it might mean more work for editors. But for wholesalers and most people, it leads to instructions that are dull, uninspired, unclear and sometimes just wrong. The tragedy is that regardless of how well-written they are, people don't READ the instructions. It's simply amazing. Many employers want their employees working, not reading. But if you have written instructions for the duties to which they are assigned, make sure your employees read every single word. Give them sufficient time to read the instructions.
  • Learning curve. Most people get minimal or cursory instructions for performing a task. Unless it involves the most rudimentary skills, the employers probably presume the new person “has it.” Often they don't. Try to ensure that the person really understands the instructions they're receiving and also understands the goal of their task or job. A reliable method is to keep training them even when you're fairly sure that they understand. That might mean an extra hour or even an extra half-day. I'm convinced that extra nudge will work wonders later.
  • Test. It's really simple. Test their knowledge. Ask the most basic 5 or 10 questions associated with the job. It's not rocket science, but don't you want to know the trainee doesn't understand something before he commits a major blunder?
  • Create a manual. Nothing original here EXCEPT that most employers just don't take the time to bother. The reality is that it does save time and money. More importantly, it becomes one of the more important historical documents that you can count on should your institutional memory fail. Joe has worked in your warehouse for 23 years, 11 years longer than anyone else. Suddenly he quits, decides to retire or keels over from a heart attack. Institutional memory gone.
  • Update it. I recently looked at the copyright of my book, Wacky Days. It was 2004. By 2007, certainly the chapter on the Internet will seem dated. It happens to manuals because technical advances intrude, and we also improve upon previous procedures but might not document them. Every few years or when there's a sudden burst of new technology, take the opportunity to ensure that the instructions we're sharing are current.
  • Info sharing. Encourage workers to share information, whether it's in the lunchroom or down at the pub after work. Just be sure that someone ultimately enters the information into the manual.