Zombies Are Not a Knowledge Capture Strategy

The situation

The manager of finance department at a major energy company had a big problem. John, the most senior accountant, was preparing to retire.

John knew everything that went on in the department. The trouble was, there were parts of the job that only John knew about. There was a big concern that once John left, there would be gaping holes in the daily and monthly processes.

What can you do in that situation? Well, normally you might ask John to just tell his co-workers what he does. He might write up a series of documents detailing his normal processes. He would then sit down and explain the documents to the people who would be taking over the different parts of his process when he left.

The trouble was, John had trouble communicating what he did to others. First of all, he was too busy to spend much time writing. And when he did finally sit down to write, he would put together big, confusing documents. The documents would ramble here and there and everywhere, while leaving out massive amounts of necessary information. John was a true expert, and so he assumed those he was writing for would know what he knew.

So what can you do? How can you extract the information in John’s head, and provide it to the people who need it? Will you just have to wait for the zombie apocalypse?

How bad it can get

Pick up any trade magazine, for any industry, and you’ll probably see an article on this problem. Baby Boomers are retiring, and newer, younger employees are not staying in one position very long. This leads to a massive brain drain at many companies.  This trend is especially troublesome in the energy industry, but it is impacting all other industries, as well.

When you hire a new employee, it is more important than ever to be able to get them up to speed quickly. Otherwise, knowledge from the previous generation of workers will be lost, and the new generation will have to relearn the same information and lessons over and over again.

It’s a real challenge to prevent that from happening. I spoke recently with a VP at a major energy company. She told me that some of the knowledge capture strategies she had tried had been partially successful. But there was no set standard that companies were using across industries to make sure that they were keeping critical knowledge within their business.

But you aren’t helpless.

Let’s reexamine the situation that John’s manager found himself in. Who was John trying to help with his writing? Who would be using John’s documentation, actually? Probably not an expert at the level of John himself. Most likely, it would be a newer employee, perhaps a younger employee.

What to do about it

Follow these steps to make sure that you capture needed information from employees before they leave:

  1. Think ahead.Before you get down to actually writing the information up, you need to do some prep work. This will ensure that you get the maximum benefit out of the effort you’ll be undertaking. Be sure to cover the following:
  • Recognize that information is a critical business asset. The information that your employees possess is what makes your business run. If that information gets up and walks away, you’re sunk.
  • Prioritize the most critical information. When any of your employees leave, it can be a blow to the business. But you and I both know that some information is more important than other information. Think about the critical processes in your business, and who makes them go. If Jack retires (or gets sick for a while), does anyone else know how to make sure the invoices are handled properly? If Maria, who is the only person who knows how to make sure the XYZ balancing process is done correctly, is suddenly out of the picture, what kind of damage would that do?
  • Communicate the need to employees. You need to emphasize how important it is to capture how your employees do their work. Make sure they know that you’re not trying to replace them, or play big brother. Actually, you think they’re so important that youhave to write down what they know. That way, you’ll have an insurance policy of sorts if they ever do check out.
  • Prepare to allocate resources. The people who know your business or department the best are the ones that will need to devote time to the documentation effort. Make sure they know that they will be expected to contribute. At the same time, recognize that they may need to push one or more of their current duties to the back burner for a bit to make time to work on documentation.
  1. Prepare your employees. Every once in a while, I run into an employee who doesn’t want me to help document their critical tasks and knowledge. They are afraid that if I do so, their employer will just lay them off and replace them with someone younger and cheaper.
    Perhaps that does happen in a few cases. But it’s never happened on any of the projects that I’ve worked on. Smart organizations document their employees’ key tasks and knowledge because they want to have something to fall back on if that employee is suddenly gone from the company. The company would rather keep the person, in nearly every case. But the documentation serves as a kind of insurance policy.
    You only take out insurance policies on things that are precious to you. Make sure your employees know that the documentation effort is an expression of how much you value them.
  2. Get organized.Once you’ve gotten your vision straight in your head, it’s time to plan the execution. Use the following guidelines in deciding how you want to document what your employees know:
  • Decide whether you will complete the writing in house, or if it’s a better idea to get outside help. Whichever option you choose, make sure your writer is an expert at communicating financial information. They should also be skilled at writing in plain English.
  • Think beyond just creating or revamping a few documents. You will get the most value if you set up reviews, deadlines, and future revamps in an efficient way. Merely creating documents per se isn’t enough. You need to think about how the documents will be put together step by step, and how they will be distributed. Someone who is trained to communicate technical information can help with this.
  • Involve writing resources early. Whether you use an inside writer or outside help, make sure they’re involved as close to the start of the planning process as possible. If you’ve already set up the project goals and organization, and you’re just now telling the writer you want their help, it’s too late. You won’t get as much value as you should.
  1. Get it done and follow through.I’m not going to lecture you on the principles of project management. If you’ve completed steps 1 and 2, step 3 should be simple. As always, be quick to communicate, and hold people to doing what they say they will do. Then make sure to follow up with any periodic updates or reviews that you schedule.

By following these 4 steps, you can capture the critical content that exists in the brains of your employees. This will help you minimize your losses when an employee leaves, and get the remaining, or new, employees up to speed quickly.

No zombies needed.