A manager from a high-tech company called me and described the following: "After five years of employment, we're losing our best project manager. She gave us two weeks notice and we've discovered that none of her subject matter knowledge is written down. Nobody knows how and what she does. Can you help us put a system in place so we're not in this situation again?"
In most organizations there is a resigned acceptance that with the departure of a key person, you lose important organizational knowledge. In small companies, it's not uncommon that just two or three people hold most of the businesses knowledge in their heads. How can you leverage the critical business skills of an employee and create better transitions when they leave?
The obvious solution is "get what they know down on paper". We all pay lip service to this idea, but people will not document what they do. The justifications range from "I just don't have the time." to the more honest "I'm not as valuable an employee if people know what I do."
The main reason your employees don't document is that there's more reward in being an expert than a team player. Managers and coworkers marvel at the experts skill and in the end, expect them to save the day. Bernard Shaw's observation that "Those who can— do, those who can't— teach." tells us much about what we expect from our top performers.
This quote, however sells the experts short. It's the business culture that keeps experts convinced that they must be lone rangers and heroes. It's time we encourage a new breed of experts, ones who see knowledge sharing as adding value. This is more than a training program, but a philosophical change in how we think about our individual contributions.
Imagine being asked when joining an organization "How comfortable are you sharing what you know with others? Can you teach? What do you value more, collaboration or expertise?" Perhaps these are the questions we should ask new employees.
Individual performance should continue to be rewarded because it can motivate others to rise to a new level. But if you only give incentives to individuals, prepare for 10% of your workforce holding in their heads 90% of the organization's knowledge. This disparity will show up every time your top performers get sick, take vacation or quit.
If you recognize this problem in your organization, consider these ideas to get experts thinking more collaboratively:
- Demand that people share expertise. Establish regular meetings where people can relate something not known by others.
- Create group incentives. Make it worthwhile for the team to be effective, rather than waiting for their instructions.
- Cross-train people in various roles. Have sales people review marketing proposals; technical folks critique sales documents; department managers share their budget with other departments.
- Teach your experts how to teach. The four steps in a nutshell are: show someone how to do something, take the time to watch them do it, give feedback, then watch them do it again. If you can get your best people to do steps 2–4, you're moving in the right direction.
Consider that your experts want to be better collaborators. They'll step up to the plate when you demonstrate that information sharing allows them to continue producing effective results. In organizations like these, unlike the call I received, the loss of a key employee becomes an opportunity, rather than a nightmare.