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Critical Issues in Radiation Protection Knowledge Management for Preserving Radiation Protection Research and Development Capabilities

Dewji, Shaheen Azim

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doi: 10.1097/HP.0000000000000603
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IN RESPONSE to the severe atrophy of capabilities in health physics identified by the Health Physics Society in 2002, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) created WARP (Where Are the Radiation Professionals?) to assess the “front-end” of the human capital pipeline in university education and training (NCRP 2015). Over a decade later, the human capital crisis in radiation protection continues to be of paramount concern to address the loss of expertise associated with the loss of radiation protection knowledge on the “back-end,” most notably, but not exclusively, with respect to research and development (R&D) capabilities of the field. To preserve the radiation protection knowledge in R&D that may be lost due to the growing number of retirements in the field, knowledge management (KM) and knowledge capture have become an extremely high priority that must be addressed immediately before the expertise is irreplaceably lost.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has estimated that by September 2017, 31% of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire (USGAO 2014), and the percentage of engineering and technical professionals eligible to retire by September 2017 is even higher at 41% (NCRP 2015).

The GAO initially designated strategic human capital management as a high-risk area because of the long-standing lack of leadership of strategic human capital management; although steps have been taken, the area remains high risk because of a need to address current and emerging critical skill gaps that are undermining agencies’ abilities to meet their vital missions (USGAO 2011). The federal government’s continuing budgetary constraints underscore the importance of a strategic approach to the recruitment and retention of individuals with the needed critical skills while ensuring outgoing critical knowledge is identified, captured, transferred, and maintained. Furthermore, long-term projections of the growth of nuclear applications in medicine, space, energy, and security have underscored the need to preserve and maintain radiation protection knowledge. The need for critical radiation protection knowledge to be captured, transferred, and maintained through a formal KM and preservation system is a mission-critical effort required in radiation protection and health physics R&D.

To commence a KM and knowledge preservation (KP) effort in radiation protection, a variety of identification, capture, transfer, and management techniques must be considered. In addition, various methods of tacit knowledge codification and sharing must supplement the broader KM strategy for radiation protection. If the specialized radiation protection knowledge accumulated to date is lost, domestic leadership in radiation protection may stagnate, leaving many generations with a less secure nuclear future. In addition, the myriad stakeholders with mission statements contingent on domestic radiation protection specialized knowledge would be unable to meet their needs. These factors have led to the need for effective strategies and policies in KM in radiation protection. The Center for Radiation Protection Knowledge (CRPK) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is spearheading an effort to outline a strategy for a KM effort in radiation protection that focuses on mission-critical knowledge in the United States.


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines KM as “an integrated, systematic approach to identifying, acquiring, transforming, developing, disseminating, using, and preserving knowledge, relevant to achieving specified objectives;” KM comprises three core components (IAEA 2012a):

  • people and the organizational culture to stimulate and nurture the sharing and use of knowledge;
  • processes or methods to find, create, capture, and share knowledge; and
  • technology to store and make knowledge accessible—allowing people to work together without being located together, such as through databases and knowledge portals.

These core components outline a strategic view of KM for radiation protection that underscores the symbiosis among human capabilities, technological resources, and organizational cultures across universities, R&D organizations (e.g., national laboratories), federal/state government, commercial industry, and other communities of practice (CoPs).§

In the scope of the radiation protection and health physics fields, a KM system would serve the following purposes for the preservation of radiation protection expertise (Sbaffoni 2013; Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
Fig. 1:
Objectives of a KM system in radiation protection and health physics.


In addition to addressing security and safety consequences due to an aging radiation protection workforce, a KM program can provide the following benefits (IAEA 2012b):

  1. Mitigating Singleton Reliance: Radiation protection is a small and very specialized discipline within the health physics and nuclear fields. A high proportion of staff are regarded as specialized experts with limited or no immediate successors; they are thus considered “singletons.” Such a situation is not only exacerbated by an aging workforce but also by a deficiency in resources (e.g., funding) and absence of a KM strategy in radiation protection. Although management succession planning may exist at some federal government or commercial industry facilities, taking into account the continuity of subject matter expertise and core skills within radiation protection is sometimes not considered. This is of critical importance to meet the mission scope in radiation protection R&D organizations;
  2. Improving Innovation: The capability to innovate in radiation protection R&D in the United States is of paramount interest, as innovation provides an avenue for leadership in radiation protection initiatives, both domestically and globally. The adoption of KM tools prevents redundancy in established practices and results that may not have been codified and captured. Using KM to keep the knowledge base current and accessible enhances the potential for innovation;
  3. Developing Collaborations and Partnerships: Collaboration and partnerships among academic programs, national laboratories, state/federal government entities, and the nuclear industry require a flexible approach, and the process can be facilitated by the introduction of various KM tools and techniques. The ability to innovate through collaboration is facilitated by KM techniques and tools adopted by CoPs, professional societies, and consortia. Examples of collaborative entities supporting radiation protection include academia, federal/state governmental agencies [e.g., the Interagency Steering Committee on Radiation Standards (ISCORS)], national laboratories, professional societies (e.g., Health Physics Society, American Nuclear Society, etc.), and councils and working groups (NCRP, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements, etc.);
  4. Developing and Maintaining Staff Competence: Harnessing a staff with the appropriate level of competence and experience is pivotal for radiation protection work across stakeholder institutions. Consequently, competency frameworks or a subject-matter-expert (SME) database are required to identify holders of critical knowledge (e.g., technical experts, managers, senior laboratory technicians, etc.). Critical knowledge can be identified and assessed as part of the knowledge loss risk assessment (described below); and
  5. Delivering Radiation Protection Education and Training: Academic outreach is important for institutions involved in radiation protection R&D. With the specialized knowledge developed in the fields of radiation protection/health physics, collaboration between R&D facilities and institutions of higher education is necessary to recruit and retain qualified students in the human capital pipeline. In addition, national laboratories (and their partners) must offer education and training of early- and mid-career personnel as a means to develop skills and to transfer both explicit and tacit knowledge through training courses.


The recruitment, retention, resources, and retirement (4R) paradigm is a useful way of envisioning all human capital and KM efforts in a continuum (Fig. 2) (Dewji et al. 2015a).

Fig. 2
Fig. 2:
“4R” paradigm of human capital development in KM (Dewji et al. 2014, 2015a).§§

KM cannot and should not be focused explicitly on recruitment and being limited to targeting university students to introduce them to radiation protection principles and to get them interested in a career in health physics. It must also assist them as they develop into young professionals, providing them with a pathway to success. Recruitment, which the WARP initiative has well emphasized, should be the first, but not sole, means of establishing a human capital pipeline in a radiation protection-oriented KM effort. Furthermore, bridging the knowledge gap between outgoing and next-generation staff has now become a critical mission for CRPK through the development of KM and KP.


KM for radiation protection and health physics must address the following questions (Dewji et al. 2015b):

  • Knowledge creation: What radiation protection knowledge is being created?
  • Knowledge identification: Which knowledge is key to the concept of radiation protection?
  • Knowledge capture: How is radiation protection knowledge going to be collected?
  • Knowledge transfer: To whom is the radiation protection knowledge going to be handed for posterity?

The following processes have been identified for obtaining an organized archive of the three types of critical knowledge related to radiation protection. They are the focus of a radiation protection KM effort and must be considered from a KP perspective in the organizational context. The sequence in which they are undertaken may vary (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2012a), but at its core it includes: (1) identification, (2) capture, (3) transfer and exchange, and (4) monitoring and evaluation.


Knowledge identification considers how critical knowledge will be identified, captured, transferred, and maintained over time. As part of the knowledge identification process, knowledge prioritization is based on the premise that there is critical knowledge in an organization that needs to be identified. Critical knowledge is defined as (1) the knowledge established in the context of a position particularly important to the continued success of the organization, and (2) the knowledge that is deemed imperative for incumbents of said position to possess before being allowed to perform associated duties and tasks independently (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2012b). Identification of critical knowledge requires a variety of resources (people, processes, and technologies) at various organizational levels.**

Types of knowledge

When thinking about KP as a process, it is helpful to understand the different types of critical knowledge that exist to understand how best to capture and store that knowledge. When considering KM, knowledge can be classified as one of three different types: Explicit, implicit, and tacit.


Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has been declared or codified in the form of tangible media, such as documents, drawings, procedures, and manuals. Explicit knowledge must be systematically captured such that information is made more readily shareable and accessible. Also, the information needs to be stored in a manner permitting ready access by stakeholders (e.g., national laboratory researchers, federal government sponsors, and decision makers).


Implicit knowledge represents knowledge that is more difficult to share and capture but is still possible to record. It is possible to convert implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge through a “codification” or “transformation” conversion process. Implicit knowledge may be captured through detailed lecture notes, textbook notes or other sources that will allow for others to present the same material thoroughly and authoritatively.


Tacit knowledge is the most difficult to identify, articulate, and capture. Tacit knowledge includes experience, skills, judgment, insights, and intuition that an expert develops over years of experience in the field and is often passed down from mentor to mentee, although it can never be completely captured. Often, tacit knowledge is anecdotal (why things evolved as they did) as opposed to explicitly codified. Tacit knowledge can be observed but cannot all be codified and converted into tangible (explicit) media. Within the scope of R&D organizations, this is best achieved through technical collaboration on specific project work.

Assessment of knowledge loss risk

In a complementary effort to core competency identification, conducting a knowledge-loss risk assessment fulfills the purposes of workforce planning, core competency-based succession planning, and identification of holders of critical knowledge to engage in KP efforts (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2006). The knowledge-loss risk assessment is designed to identify individuals and positions where the loss of knowledge is most impactful and imminent. Knowledge-loss risk is quantified by two variables: attrition risk factor and position risk factor.

It is beneficial to create a matrix of total risk factor vs. employee/role in an institution. In the case of radiation protection, this can be divided up by national laboratory. From an R&D stakeholder perspective (e.g., federal government, international organizations), the matrix may be divided up by core competency/subject matter expertise.


The attrition risk factor evaluates the expected attrition (or other retirement) date. This can be determined according to age and tenure or via employee attestation. Table 1 lists the criteria used to assign an attrition risk factor.

Table 1
Table 1:
Attrition risk factor criteria.a


The position risk factor is based on the unique or critical knowledge and skills possessed by the individual and by the level of difficulty or effort required to fill the position. The position risk factor is determined by departmental management, peers, and/or CoPs. In assigning the factor, each individual’s responsibilities and background, formal and informal roles, and other factors corroborating that the individual may have unique/critical knowledge and skills are considered. Table 2 lists the criteria used to assign a position risk factor.

Table 2
Table 2:
Position risk factor criteria.a

Total risk

The total risk provides an overall assessment of the knowledge loss risk and prioritizes the individual who must be immediately targeted by a KP effort. The total risk factor (t) for an individual is the product of the attrition risk factor (a) and the position risk factor (p).

Table 3 lists the criteria used to assign a total risk factor.

Table 3
Table 3:
Total risk factor evaluation.a

Case study: critical knowledge capture process at CRPK

To outline the concepts described here within the scope of ORNL (a high-profile R&D institution with multiple domestic and international stakeholders of radiation protection knowledge), the knowledge-loss risk assessment methodology is first framed by identifying differing roles in the organization that contribute to the radiation protection mission effort (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
Fig. 3:
Radiation protection nuclear KM effort at an R&D facility.

Based on these three broadly categorized roles, knowledge prioritization and identification of critical knowledge can be determined. Thereafter, a knowledge-loss risk assessment can be conducted from which the impacts of critical knowledge loss can be realized (Table 4).

Table 4
Table 4:
Example of identifying critical and unique knowledge in an R&D institution.


Once the total risk factor for knowledge attrition has identified holders of critical radiation protection knowledge, a KP effort can begin to target subject matter experts with critical knowledge in core capability fields. Identification of holders of critical knowledge in core competency fields is required for both KP and workforce planning as part of the broader KM effort.

Bibliometric methods: core capability/competency identification and database

The identification of radiation protection personnel holding critical knowledge in core capability/competency fields can be determined via a combination of management identification, peer identification by CoPs (professional societies, working groups), bibliometric methods, and self-identification. A radiation protection KM effort does require the identification of core competency areas. KM bibliometric methods using professional society proceedings have been conducted by Gaudet et al. in other nuclear fields (Gaudet et al. 2015). This aspect of the “knowledge identification” phase has already commenced at the CRPK using bibliometric methods based on professional society proceedings to identify SMEs in each of the core capability/competency areas; these data iterate upon preliminary information based on the Health Physics Society annual meeting data.††


Collaboration is required to rapidly disseminate radiation protection knowledge. The transfer of knowledge is conducted through sharing, exchanging, revising, refining, and validating. Electronic media (email, internet) are the primary means of transfer of explicit knowledge, ideally through an established knowledge portal. The exchange of implicit/tacit knowledge is conducted via the following methods and audiences:

  • interviews and questionnaires;
  • conferences and meetings;
  • mentoring, training, and project-based technical collaboration; and
  • CoPs.


Periodic reviews should be conducted to monitor the implementation status of a knowledge retention plan. This may include reviewing previous and ongoing knowledge retention efforts carried out to identify individuals/positions requiring reassessment and reviewing associated knowledge retention metrics. These metrics include evaluating future attrition and evaluating the success of the knowledge retention plans in accomplishing the stated objectives (Table 5).

Table 5
Table 5:
Milestones for monitoring the success of a KM effort.

Knowledge retention plans require continual revisiting and refining. Revision may be applicable to an individual, a core competency or skill set, or a process.

Potential obstacles

In considering the development of a comprehensive KM effort for radiation protection, the following obstacles or pitfalls that should be anticipated and addressed at each stage of the KM effort are as follows (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2012b):

  1. Insufficient management commitment: Not establishing support from senior management from the radiation protection stakeholders is the primary reason that some KM and information technology projects could fail to meet their objectives. Support supersedes simply signing a policy document or making verbal overtures of commitment. A proactive discussion is required to develop a KM effort that can best be integrated into organizational practices. Within the scope of CRPK, proactive support will be required from NCRP/WARP as well as other stakeholders (e.g., ISCORS) and academic community members. At governmental organizations (federal government, national laboratories, etc.), division directors, line managers, and human resources staff will need to be actively engaged to integrate KM practices;
  2. Incorrect business alignment: Implementation of KM that does not align with stakeholder business needs or the NCRP, CRPK, and national radiation protection mission scope will also not succeed. KM tools and methods must be shown to be beneficial to radiation protection stakeholder operations, with a clear vision of how the benefits can be reaped from adopting KM;
  3. Understanding resource requirements: The IAEA has determined that it is a common mistake for organizations to underestimate the resources (budgetary and manpower) required for implementing a successful KM effort (IAEA 2012b). Since KM centers around people, resources are needed by a project team to implement the KM tools and methods: SMEs needed for the knowledge transfer process, line managers of SMEs, and information technology resources;
  4. Failing to address cultural issues: The success of a KM effort is contingent upon the organizational adoption of a knowledge-sharing culture. Conditions that are not conducive to sharing will be a huge barrier to the success of KM. Some managers or SMEs may not find it beneficial or time-efficient to partake in this activity;
  5. Poor communication: Failing to communicate the objectives of the KM effort at all radiation protection stakeholder organizational levels will lead to difficulty in KM implementation. Radiation protection stakeholders (e.g., ISCORS), most notably those of national laboratories, must be engaged throughout every stage in the KM implementation process. Increased leverage can also be gained by communicating the KM project objectives to clients, contractors, and partnering organizations. Providing regular progress reports and sharing milestones with these stakeholders and managers, while providing the opportunity to solicit feedback, will also ensure continued commitment to the KM effort as it evolves; and
  6. Understanding implementation timescales: Implementing a KM project requires considerable effort, much of which is learning and making adaptations as the tools and methods are adopted. The initiation of a pilot project will help identify any obstacles and will provide “lessons learned” as the KM effort is transposed to a national laboratory and federal government-wide effort. Delays should be anticipated, and adequate margins must be built into the program time line.


Radiation protection is suffering from an aging workforce and is at high risk for the loss of unique and critical knowledge in this specialized field. Adopting a KM effort is critical to the maintenance and innovation in radiation protection expertise. Through the CRPK, NCRP-WARP, and the broader radiation protection community, a comprehensive KM effort must be undertaken to ensure the transfer and preservation of radiation protection knowledge from radiation protection experts to the next generation of radiation protection specialists.

A comprehensive KM effort would meet the WARP mission to revitalize and expand the international radiation protection human capital base in the United States by attracting, educating, training, and retaining a new generation of radiation protection professionals. The objective of this KM strategic plan for WARP is to synchronize the programmatic efforts under the NCRP and to unify them under a comprehensive and structured KM effort. This report also is written to define the principles of KM as they pertain to WARP and to identify the tools and techniques that can be adopted under this effort. This report further outlined a strategic plan for KP, proposed a five-stage implementation strategy, and identified potential obstacles to this KM effort for WARP.

To preserve implicit/tacit knowledge, CRPK must obtain adequate resources and must commit to providing specialized training and mentoring in each of the core competency fields to the next generation of radiation protection experts. Effective planning for the radiation protection workforce in the scope of WARP must also ensure that mechanisms are in place to transfer critical knowledge between senior experts and the next generation of radiation protection specialists through specialized training, project-based hands-on experience, coaching, and formal mentoring.

Under the aforementioned 4R paradigm, WARP has amply focused on recruitment but needs to focus its effort on retention, resources, and retirement in increasing order of priority. Focusing too heavily on retention will result in a large cadre of next-generation professionals interested in radiation protection but with very little knowledge transfer from SMEs. Within the scope of a radiation protection KP effort, metrics acquisition under the CRPK and WARP can be aligned with the knowledge-loss risk assessment to determine if critical knowledge is being captured and subsequently transferred to the next generation of radiation protection experts. A comprehensive KM effort spanning the entire 4R paradigm will enable WARP and CRPK to strategically focus its efforts on the development of the next generation of radiation protection specialists while mitigating any gaps in generational knowledge transfer through adoption of a formal KM program.


This manuscript has been authored by UT-Battelle, LLC under Contract No. DE-AC05‐00OR22725 with the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the U.S. Government retains a non-exclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, world-wide license to publish or reproduce the published form of this manuscript, or allow others to do so, for U.S. Government purposes. The Department of Energy will provide public access to these results of federally sponsored research in accordance with the DOE Public Access Plan (


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    For the scope of this paper, radiation protection and health physics should be considered as interchangeable and equally applicable.
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    Including, but not limited to members of the Interagency Steering Committee on Radiation Standards (ISCORS).
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    § Other CoPs can include professional societies domestically and abroad (i.e., American Nuclear Society, Health Physics Society), as well as professional working groups (i.e., NCRP, ICRP, ICRU, etc.). They exist to provide an environment, either face-to-face or virtual, to facilitate the exchange of ideas or to address a specific need or problem. CoPs are important in realizing the R&D benefits through the increased potential for innovation through collaboration, and they act as a medium for effective knowledge transfers.
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    **Personnel may self-identify and identify other holders of critical knowledge, including top managers, human resources, CoPs, professional societies (such as the American Nuclear Society and Health Physics Society), and peers.
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    ††Compiled by Dirsa, Dewji and Chapman 2015, unpublished.
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