In the great epics of India, Ramayan and Mahabharata, war ends not with celebration of victory but with transmission of knowledge . In the Ramayan, Ravan lies mortally wounded on the battlefield and the monkeys are celebrating their victory, when Ram turns to his brother , Lakshman, and says, “While Ravan is a brute, he is also a great scholar. Go to him quickly and request him to share whatever knowledge he can.”
The obedient Lakshman rushes to Ravan’s side and whispers in his ears, “Demon king , all your life you have taken, not given. Now the noble Ram gives you an opportunity to mend your ways. Share your vast wisdom. Do not let it die with you. For that you will surely be blessed.”
Ravan responds by simply turning away. An angry Lakshman goes back to Ram and says:
“He is as arrogant as he always was, too proud to share anything.”
Ram looks at his brother and asks him softly, “Where did you stand while asking him for knowledge?”
“Next to his head so that I hear what he had to say clearly.”
Ram smiles, places his bow on the ground and walks to where Ravan lies. Lakshman watches in astonishment as his brother kneels at Ravan’s feet. With palms joined, with extreme humility, Ram says, “Lord of Lanka, you abducted my wife, a terrible crime for which I have been forced to punish you. Now, you are no more my enemy. I see you now as you are known across the world, as the wise son of Rishi Vishrava. I bow to you and request you to share your wisdom with me. Please do that, for if you die without doing so, all your wisdom will be lost forever to the world.”
To Lakshman’s surprise, Ravan opens his eyes and raises his arms to salute Ram, “If only I had more time as your teacher than as your enemy. Standing at my feet as a student should, unlike your rude younger brother, you are a worthy recipient of my knowledge. I have very little time so I cannot share much but let me tell you one important lesson I have learnt in my life. Things that are bad for you seduce you easily; you run towards them impatiently. But things that are actually good for you fail to attract you; you shun them creatively, finding powerful excuses to justify your procrastination . That is why I was impatient to abduct Sita but avoided meeting you. This is the wisdom of my life, Ram. My last words. I give it to you.” With these words, Ravan dies.
There’s similar knowledge transmission after the Mahabharat war is over and the Kauravas are all dead. As the victorious Pandavas are about to assume control of Hastinapur, Krishna advises them to talk to Bhisma, their grand uncle, who lies mortally wounded on the battlefield. As a result of a blessing, death would elude him for some time.
“Make him talk until his last breath. Ask him questions. He has a lot to tell,” says Krishna.
Sure enough, when prompted , the dying Bhisma spends hours discussing various topics: history, geography, politics, economics , management, war, ethics, morality, sex, astronomy , metaphysics and spirituality . Bhisma’s discourse is captured in the Shanti Parva (discussions of peace) and Anushasan Parva (discussions on discipline) that makes up a quarter of the Mahabharata. After listening to their grandsire, the Pandavas have a better understanding of the world, and this makes them better kings.
Both these stories draw attention to the value of knowledge. In triumph, it is easy to claim the material possessions of the defeated – his cows, his gold, his slaves, his kingdom, his palace. But it is not easy to claim his knowledge. When he dies, his knowledge and all his experience goes with him. Knowledge does not outlive death.
Every day, an organization churns out vast amounts of knowledge. Every day, people leave organizations, taking their knowledge with them, knowledge which they probably acquired because they were part of the organization. They take with them knowledge of clients, markets, business processes, tricks of the trade. These may not be confidential information or patented information, but information that does give an organization that competitive edge.
Long has this knowledge-drain been recognised. Over the past decade, a whole new business process known as knowledge management has evolved that seeks to harness, store, transmit this knowledge. Every CEO agrees that it is a valuable business process, that investment in it is critical. Policies have been made, people have been hired and systems have been deployed. Unfortunately, for all the initial enthusiasm, implementation has been lacking.
Unlike retrieving cash, retrieving knowledge from employees, both current and future, is not easy. Often because they are like Sahadeva. Sahadeva was the youngest Pandava and, in the South Indian Mahabharata, he is described as an expert in many predictive sciences such as astrology , palmistry and face reading. But he is cursed: if he ever gave any information voluntarily , his head will split into a thousand pieces. That is why he is silent throughout the epic. He knows every fortune and misfortune that his family will go through, but he can never use his knowledge to forewarn anyone. When Yudhishtira finally learns of his brother’s prowess he is furious. “Why did you not tell me all that you knew?” All he gets in response is Sahadeva’s silence.
Most employees in an organisation are Sahadevas. Sahadevas are of two types: either they are unwilling to share their knowledge or they don’t have the means to do so. The former category knows that knowledge is power and will not give it away under any circumstances. The latter category is willing to share knowledge but either no one asks them for it or there is no system where they can make it available for others.
Knowledge Management is leadership driven. Only a Ram, not a Laskhman can do it. He must first believe in it. He must respect the fact that everyone in his organisation, even those who he does not particularly like, are repositories of great wisdom – not only knowledge of things that work but also knowledge of things that do not work. He must make conscious efforts to capture as much of it as possible.
The simplest method is talking to people, while they are on the job and especially when they are leaving the organisation . An exit interviews must never be a ritual. Neither must it be an exercise to just get the venom out nor an exercise to expose the underbelly that has prompted the resignation. It must be a concerted effort to gather what was the knowledge acquired between joining and leaving the organisation. Interviews work if the organisation is small. As the organisation grows in size, one needs a more formal system, at the very least a simple archival system managed by a clerk or secretary but on a larger scale, a sophisticated knowledge repository , a kind of electronic cupboard where at least the final version of presentations, documents and spreadsheets of key business events can be stored.