By Margery Weinstein
Losing an intelligent, dependable, hard-working employee always seems a shame. What’s an even bigger shame is the frustration (and even panic) that arises when managers and co-workers suddenly realize Fred or Sally isn’t around to give them the back story on an old customer, or explain how a tricky software program he or she developed works. More companies are catching on to the need to capture the knowledge of outgoing employees before they walk out the door. But with the help of technology, and traditional mentoring, organizations are learning ways to spare remaining workers the task of reinventing the corporate wheel.
Protocol for Posterity
Healthpoint, Ltd., a wound treatment services provider, currently uses a customer relationship management (CRM) tool to capture information from outgoing sales employees, says Director, Sales Training and Development Jimmy Kitson. Healthpoint currently is considering this customer relationship management tool for other departments, as well. “In addition, our company has asked each department to create Standard Operating Procedure documents to allow for information to be passed on,” he explains.
To further ensure standard operating procedure isn’t hampered by turnover, Healthpoint has instituted specific processes to increase the chances its legal documents, compliance, and research and development efforts survive employee turnover. “This information is stored using several programs developed internally,” says Kitson. The company is still working on making that information more easily accessible. “Our challenge is finding the knowledge that is stored within our company’s computer programs,” he says. The company has upgraded its technology throughout its internal computer drives to quicken the information search process.
But sometimes bringing an employee back in the flesh is the only solution. “There have been several instances where we have had employees leave the company or retire, and we have asked them to return to help put new plans in place,” Kitson notes. Recently, for example, the company had a vice president of sales, who had been retired since 2005, return to help onboard its newest vice president of sales. “This four-month process has been a smooth one, and has helped with the transition of our new vice president,” he says. This in-the-flesh approach to knowledge capture worked so well the company also has former employees in its marketing and research and development departments return to serve as subject matter experts. However, as reliable as this approach is, Kitson says Healthpoint also would like to find new technological solutions—in the form of an enhanced version of its CRM or perhaps another technology altogether—to further aid knowledge transfer.
Write It, Say It, Share It
Special People In Northeast, Inc. (SPIN), a nonprofit that provides services for persons with disabilities, takes a systematic approach to ensure the knowledge of key employees is documented and that current practices and procedures are passed on to job role successors. “Our Information Technology Department supports us in organizing our processes via technological procedural flow charts,” says Corporate Officer for Professional Development Judy Dotzman. “Our key areas of business are documented into ‘How-to Manuals,’ as well as the flow charts, and are saved in global files to be shared. The transparency is critical; however, as the How-to Manuals are changed, they are archived. Only the developers who are the subject matter experts are given the ability to make changes.”
SPIN’s CEO and president, David Losinno, also is doing his part to aid knowledge transfer. “Luckily, our CEO has chronicled his thoughts on the history of SPIN in the written word,” says Dotzman. “He has volumes over his 40-year career to share with us.” Along with Losinno’s written words, the company is looking for ways to capture his, and other executives’, expertise electronically. “We are in the planning stages of documenting bodies of knowledge that include critical personal and professional experience from subject matter experts,” Dotzman explains. “Especially for training purposes, we are planning to document these treasured experiences through Webcam and videos.”
But before SPIN can begin this process, Dotzman says it has two questions it must answer: “What is important to save?” and “Who are the ‘historians’ or subject matter experts?”
Along with Webcasts and videos, SPIN finds old-time mentoring handy in passing knowledge to the next generation of workers. “Our new managers are matched with seasoned senior managers or executive leaders to support their learning, growth, and development,” says Dotzman. “We still believe in one-on-one time with mentoring, and feel it has been the most successful [approach] for us.”
Figuring out which information is critical to save, and which individuals in the organization possess it, is only a fraction of the battle. Another crucial hurdle for SPIN is keeping its knowledge capture a priority, says Dotzman. Knowledge capture is essential for its newest workers to understand the organization’s mission, she emphasizes. She says new employees often are unfamiliar with the historical struggles faced by persons with disabilities. “We need to focus on capturing the knowledge before it is too late. In our industry, new generations do not know historically significant milestones in the civil rights of people with disabilities, and often they are not even learning it in the college classroom. We need to capture this body of knowledge before it is gone and forgotten.”
Technology + Tradition= Knowledge Gained
Marrying technology with traditional knowledge capture is key to success, but like so many other workforce management challenges, it’s easier said than done. The trick, according to David Singer, manager of integrated solutions for knowledge capture company Information Mapping, is realizing you can’t take a purely technological or purely traditional approach. “While technology can be very helpful, our experience confirms organizations that are successful in capturing employee knowledge don’t rely on technology alone,” says Singer. “Instead, they recognize the need to take control of their organization’s ‘information life cycle.’”
Namely, he says they implement a six-step strategy:
What makes this multi-pronged strategy especially hard is you can’t wait until you reach a turnover crisis. In other words, you have to endure the burden of planning ahead rather than procrastinating. “Organizations that remain competitive will be those that view knowledge capture not as a measure to take when facing employee departures but rather as a constant priority,” says Singer. “These organizations will foster information-centric cultures in which control of mission-critical knowledge is seen as a primary source of competitive advantage. They will make it their business to develop and put into place effective systems, technology-based and otherwise, for achieving this control.”
A company that appears to share that philosophy is McDonald’s USA, LLC. The latest knowledge capture innovation at McDonald’s came about when the company realized its workforce needed a way to tap into subject matter knowledge that went beyond technical how-to’s. It was looking for a way to preserve and organize the knowledge it expected employees would acquire in the process of rolling out a new batch of corporate initiatives. “We knew we would be learning lessons as these initiatives were deployed, and we wanted to leverage that growing collective knowledge,” says Anne Klonsky, an instructional design manager in McDonald’s U.S. Training, Learning, and Development division.
The company currently is developing a solution in partnership with learning vendor NogginLabs. It calls this new solution “The Virtual Consultant.” “It’s a little bit like FAQs on steroids,” says Klonsky. “There are stories from experts, but these experts are not from corporate, they are people such as restaurant managers or technology leads or owner/operators. In this way, our learners can learn from their peers—a highly effective method.”
As contributors to The Virtual Consultant gain more experience, they will be able to add new stories to the system. “In this way,” says Klonsky, “The Virtual Consultant grows and morphs with the needs of learners.” That flexibility, it seems, is at the heart of knowledge capture—ensuring your employees’ brains keep pace with changing times—and your company’s revolving door.