KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Where does your knowledge go when you leave?

with one comment

brain drain

One thing organizations are not good about is figuring out how to retain or reuse knowledge of staff who leave the organization, whether through retirement or leaving for a job in another organization. Many organizations do very little at all to address this, but even for those that do, there are a few fundamental flaws in how organizations look at this problem:

1. They consider that whatever knowledge you generate or use while you are in a job belongs to the organization and so should be kept there

2. They consider knowledge to reside either in documents and products produced by staff – or in a slightly more enlightened state they consider that it resides in individuals and can be downloaded from the when they leave.

3. They create a firewall between current and former staff, including retirees making it hard to maintain personal networks and relationships that are often where the real source of knowledge exchange lies.

Probably the most effective strategy to retain knowledge is to be the kind of organization that retains and develops its best staff – and that could be a series of blog pots in its own right – but staff will leave whether through retirement, to seek new opportunities, or as a result of restructuring  – so we need to think of ways to address this.

At KM World a couple of weeks ago (yes I’m still blogging about that) there were a few interesting presentations about how to tap into the knowledge and expertise of former staff  – in particular a very interesting one by Lesley Schneier a retiree of the World Bank about a system they had set up to tap into the expertise of Bank retirees to support current projects on a pro-bono basis, building on the enthusiasm of many retirees to keep in touch and be helpful and the interest of current staff to get free expert advised from seasoned professionals.  There were lots of good ideas on how to make us of the desire of retirees to stay involved to support current work but also a couple of important lessons on the challenges too.

One challenge at the Bank is the interaction between staff and retirees takes place on an externally facing platform which is separate from the platforms that staff use in their day-to-day work (because I presume IT security?) which means that it is much more of an effort for current staff to go there, and many don’t even know that it is an option.

I don’t have any magic solutions to the problem of “knowledge walking out the door” but it seems to me that there are a few practices we could try to change which could make an important difference:

Most IT systems use your current official email as a means of authenticating you into social platforms. This is great as it is a good shortcut to check whether you are a current employee and so should be permitted to be part of the internal intranet and all the secrets and confidences in contains – but when you leave you lose your official email and access to your internal resources, but also to whatever internal social networks you have.

However in reality the nature of a social network is that is social, that is it is based on personal and professional relationships that have developed over time. Once you have left an organization your social connections (and willingness to collaborate with them) do not disappear overnight with a change of job or of email address. Neither do your past contributions suddenly become useless – even if over time they might decline in relevance.

So a couple of practices to consider might be to allow some kind of continued access to communities or similar sites after you retire or leave the organization. Obviously there would be some things which are too internal or confidential to share, especially in commercial operations; but in my area of work, international development, any technical discussions on how to do our work better should not be confidential and so there is no reason to lock people out after they leave the organization – after all they may still be willing to provide free advice to support current projects.

Maybe an even better way to handle this would be to create communities that are by default open in the first place and have your staff use those for non-internal non-confidential collaboration – that way you can more easily engage with and learn from external experts even if they have never worked for your organization – and also your internal expertise can be of benefit to others without needing formal cooperation thus increasing the influence of your knowledge work.

One particular bad practice I have seen that should be avoided at all costs is to delete a persons contributions to online discussions after they leave an organization, or after they choose to leave a network, or to delete their user profile. It’s useful to mark on someone’s profile if they are currently working for the organization and if they are currently active in the network as this is useful information when reading the contributions – but don’t delete either the contribution or the profile of the person who created it.

Another challenge with retaining knowledge is the handover process. In some places we don’t have any consistent handover procedures at all and if there is a large gap in hiring (as is often the case in the UN) then a newcomer is often forced to try to recreate from scratch the knowledge base of their predecessor. A few thoughts on this:

1. It’s good to have some standard handover process in place with some standard elements of what should be included and a timing to do this that is before the last minute. Even better if these are in some widely accessible database. Better still if there are some “teeth” to make sure that this is complied with. This could be as simple as a standard template  – but there are also some more creative techniques out there involving interviewing, video etc. that make it more alive and less procedural.

2. It is however unreasonable to expect that someone can download all relevant knowledge into a form or interview since a lot of the important tacit, just in time knowledge can’t be captured in a handover note – in fact you don’t always know what is most important until you need it. Having human contact between someone leaving a post and a new person coming can help a lot with this. Ideally having an overlap when two people are in post together so that the newcomer can see in practice how the job is done can be extremely valuable, and it would be good if we could change our hiring practices to allow for this – especially for critical office positions that require a lot of “feeling” for the job that can’t be easily captured in written form.  If an overlap isn’t possible then a face to face handover meeting, or better still a meeting with some follow-up calls can greatly help.

3. Lastly since this is “World Out Loud Week” – one of the best ways to mitigate against knowledge loss is not to try to capture everything when the person leaves, and when memories of important events and learnings have often been retrospectively interpreted to fit your own world view – wouldn’t it be better instead to capture knowledge all the time as you work? That way it is much easier to see the individual steps on how a project was developed, how and when key decisions were made and what were the key drivers. Encouraging all staff to work out loud (inside the organization if they are not willing or able to do it publicly) and making all that available to the rest of the organization to learn from is one of the best ways of preserving living knowledge that comes from how we actually do our work (rather than how we talk about it afterwards).

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 20, 2014 at 9:29 am

One Response

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  1. Hi Ian

    A friend referred me to this post and I would like to draw your attention to this blog post for an approach that we have been quietly been working on for some time now with some very good results and some excellent case studies. It takes inspiration from a visual method for capturing rationale and brings a whole new dimension to the video/interview process. I recently presented it at actKM for the first time (with some trepidation) but the feedback was great.

    http://www.cleverworkarounds.com/2014/06/04/rewriting-the-knowledge-management-rulebook-the-story-of-glyma-for-sharepoint/

    http://www.glyma.co

    regards

    Paul

    Paul Culmsee

    December 8, 2014 at 4:28 am


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