Retaining knowledge in organizations – a contrary view

Yesterday’s #kmers chat focused on the topic Retaining the Knowledge of People Leaving your Organization.  Quite a bit of discussion around the topic, including questions about whether you should try to capture knowledge from those leaving, how you should do it, etc. etc.  Personally, I agree with V Mary Abraham (@vmaryabraham) when she says:

Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.

That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.

This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.

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For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

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Doing nothing

It is better to do nothing than to be busy doing nothing.

Doing nothing is refreshing, a chance to recharge if only for a little bit. Your mind is free to wander where it may, with or without conscious intervention. Free association of thoughts runs rampant, resulting in ideas that would never have come to you otherwise. I’m sure you’ve had these moments, where you stopped trying to solve a problem and the answer came to you, “out of the blue”.

(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about meditation or anything like that. While that is no doubt beneficial, meditation is doing something, not nothing.)

On the other hand, being busy doing nothing is mentally draining, an imposition of purposeless order on your thoughts that prevents your mind from resting and recharging.

And yet there are many people – including what I would estimate as a high percentage of managers or other “leaders” – who are made very uncomfortable just by the idea of doing nothing. Never mind actually doing nothing. Or, heaven forbid, letting their employees do nothing.

This mentality comes in large part, of course, from the factory approach to work: if you are not doing something, nothing is getting made. But that just isn’t true in many forms of work today. New, good ideas are the products of today, and these can’t be created on an assembly line.

But this discomfort with our own thoughts also comes from the anxieties and worries that we keep with us. It is hard to willingly let you mind wander when you know that it may wander to places you’d rather not go.

Alannis Morrisette describes this quite well in this snippett of song:

Why are you so petrified of silence,
Here can you handle this?
(silent pause)
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

Take some time today to do nothing. And then go out and do something.

Hero worship

Which type of person do you prefer to work with, someone who thrashes early and gets things quietly done, or someone who swoops in at the end for some last minute heroics?

Which type of person receives the most attention in your organization? Are you more likely to hear, “John was squared away and relaxed when it was time to ship” or “Did you see that incredible last push John made, working all night so he could meet ship date?”

Which type are you?

Next time you find yourself in a situation where you see some people cramming like crazy, and others sitting back apparently doing nothing, take a moment to think about which ones you’d prefer to have work with you to ship your product.

Goodbye to the weekend?

I saw a quote on a discussion board recently in a conversation about telecommuting and taking care of personal business during work time: If they want me to answer my email at night and on the weekends, they shouldn’t have a problem with me making personal calls or email during the day.

One of the recurring themes in Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin, is the idea that the way to succeed in the future is to move away from factory work – of all kinds, either physical or intellectual. In the blog post Goodbye to the Office, he makes explicit his point that the modern office is just a different type of factory. And that if you are doing your work outside the office even a little, why do even need the office in the first place?

Which got me thinking: Is there a future for the weekend? If not, is that a bad thing? A good thing? Just “a thing”?

The modern weekend, of course, is as it is based on a century of factory work, office work, and public education. The same can be said for winter break, spring break, and summer vacation. People want (need? demand?) time to get away from the grind, and expect their work life and their life work be kept separate.

But if you no longer need the factory, if you no longer need the office, do you really need the weekend (or spring break or summer vacation) to get away from it all?

Busy people

“If you really need something to get done, find someone who is already busy.”

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, and even given it as advice a few times. I have accepted it as true, but haven’t given much thought to why it is true.

Reading Seth Godin’s latest, Linchpin, the answer occurred to me: busy people are the artists, the linchpins of an organization. The ones who actually get things done and make things happen.

On the other hand you have what I would call the “occupied” people, those who perform a specific task that was given them and then wait for someone to tell them their next task. These are the factory workers, the interchangeable pieces of the infrastructure of the company. The people who simply do things.
When I look at it this way, it’s obvious why the busy person is who you turn to when you need someone.

The art (or not) of the apology

Wednesday evening I read Apologizing like a human, not a corporation on the 37signals blog (which, of course, reminded me of the similar chapter in Rework). Good advice, seems like common sense.

On Thursday morning I received two apologies in my e-mail. One was a perfect example of apologizing like a human, the other not so much.

The first was from Boingo, apologizing for a rash of e-mails that erroneously went out to their customers. (A slightly modified version of this is also on their blog.)

Subject: An Apology from Boingo

Let me start this off with a big, fat apology.

We’re deeply sorry (and more than a little embarrassed) about any email you received over the weekend that included a database dump in the beginning and a message that your Unlimited account has been canceled and converted to AsYouGo status.

Please be assured that there’s been no change to your account. If it was Unlimited, it still is. If it was AsYouGo, it still is. If it was closed, it still is. The email was meant for internal testing only; the system basically decided otherwise and erroneously sent the test template to a large pool of our customers.

Please disregard these emails and accept our humblest apologies. If you would like additional details, please check our blog “The Hotspot”, which we will continue to update as we gather more information.

Thanks so much for your understanding during this awkward moment in email marketing history. We would never intentionally inconvenience you in any way and strive every day to deliver the best in customer service.

Honest, sincere. “We screwed up and we’re sorry.”

The other “apology” came from a customer service department in response to an e-mail I sent them about a glass picture frame that arrived snapped in two.

Subject: Recent order (#…) – Ticket# LTK…X

Thank you for your email notifying us that your package has arrived damaged. On behalf of UPS we apologize for the inconvenience this has caused as it most definitely left our warehouse in good condition.

We are initiating a damage claim with UPS. Please hold all merchandise and packing aside as UPS can and most likely will come to inspect it. They generally will contact you within 48 hours to make an appointment for inspection.

If you would take photographs of the damaged item, manufacturers box and the outer shipping box and email them to us, would help to expedite the claims process immensely.

Please note that the entire Claims process can take up to 10 business days for UPS to investigate.

As soon as UPS accepts responsibility for this, we will reship the items or issue a refund to your card as per your desire at that time.

If you are in dire need for the items, please call us to discuss reshipment options.

We apologize for any inconvenience or confusion. Please contact us if you have any specific questions.

Boilerplate, shift the blame, impersonal (the template response doesn’t even reference the “product”, a $5 picture frame.)  “Hey, it’s not our problem. We’ll tell UPS, but you need to figure it out with them yourself and then get back to us.”

My response was as straightforward and to the point as I could make it.

You’re kidding, right? Does Adorama really expect me to go through all of this for a $5 piece of glass?

I won’t waste your time with the rest of the “conversation”.  (I’m upset enough that I wasted my own time involved in the conversation). What it boils down to was,

“This is company policy. When UPS gets back to us, we will issue you a refund. In the meantime, please order another frame from us so you can receive it more quickly.”

Don’t hold your breath, guys.

Rework (a review)

Front cover image - Rework

Rework is my kind of book. Written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from 37Signals, it has several chapters  made up of a bunch of short essays (most less than two pages) that each dive into a very specific idea or question related to the chapter. And pictures, lots of pictures.

Much of the content comes from the personal experiences of the authors over the past 10 years. To say that their approach to their company is unusual and unorthodox (at least compared to how you are usually told you should run a business) is an understatement.

The following essays in the book give you an idea of what I mean:

  • Ignore the real world (p. 13) – “The real world isn’t a place, it’s an excuse.”
  • Why grow? (p. 22) – “Small is a great destination in itself.”
  • Scratch your own itch (p. 34) – examples include James Dyson, Vic Firth, and Mary Kay Wagner
  • Embrace constraints (p. 67) – “Constraints are advantages in disguise.”
  • Throw less at the problem (p. 83) – “Your project won’t suffer nearly as much as you fear.”
  • Meetings are toxic (p. 108) – OK, we already knew that
  • Underdo your competition (p. 144) – “Do less than your competitors to beat them.”
  • …and many more…

The individual essays read like blog posts, and they are collected into chapters that could most easily be compared to tags on a blog. The chapters are organized in an almost, but not quite, chronological order based on when you might need the info as you grow (or don’t) your business. The first time through I read the book front to back, but it doesn’t really matter what order you read them.

Though aimed squarely at starters (not entrepreneurs) who want to start a business (not start a startup), Rework contains valuable ideas and insights for anyone who works, whether for themselves or for someone else. Big companies likely will not be able – or interested – in implementing many of the ideas, but anyone can take the lessons and make a difference in their corner of whatever company they find themselves.

The design of the book is also a lesson in the unusual; about the only typical aspect are the inside flaps on the book jacket. For example, when I started reading the book, I immediately had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was only when I finished the book and saw, on the last printed page, the copyright page that I realized the source of that feeling.

Fried and Hansson have pulled a George Lucas, dispensing with all the upfront crap that you usually have to get through to get to the good stuff. Two pages of praise, and then the Table of Contents. Not even a title page. Talk about getting right to the point!

If you haven’t guessed already, I strongly recommend that you read this book. It deserves the place its found on bestseller lists. You may agree or disagree with what they have to say, but they will definitely get you thinking and asking yourself questions about why you do what you do and how you do it.

Update: My review was mentioned on Signal vs. Noise in the post Interesting tangents from REWORK readers.

The opportunity cost of “easy”

In his book Mastery, George Leonard talks about the “war on mastery”. This could just as easily be called a “war on hard”. Watch TV for just a couple of minutes and you will be bombarded with ads or talk shows or news stories that show you how do something in just a couple (if that many) steps. You never see something that promises to be hard.

And yet, nearly anything worth doing – that results in growth or learning – is hard. The best you can really hope for from “easy” is to maintain what you’ve already got. At worse, you will lose something.

Does Google – or technology in general – make us stupid? No. But by being “easy”, it removes the need, and possibly the ability, to learn. Which some might say is the same thing.

Love the hard days

How often do you hear people say, “I sure hope today is an easy day”? Probably quite often. How often do you hear people say, “I sure hope today is a hard day”? Probably not quite as often.

Someone who knows the value of  the hard days is Cesar Millan, aka the Dog Whisperer. On a recently aired episode of his show, while observing the behavior of a new client and assessing the difficulty ahead (which in this case was significant), Cesar looked at the camera and smiled.

“I love days like this.”

He knew it was going to be a hard day, not only for him but for the dog and its owners. But he wouldn’t have it any other way, because he understands that it is only on the hard days that you can achieve great things.

So, love the hard days when they come, they are a gift and your chance to shine.

Rude is in the eye of the beholder

Quite a while back, Scott (aka @nametagscott) tweeted the following words of wisdom: It’s not the traffic that stresses you out, it is your reaction to traffic that stresses you out. I’d like to modify that just a bit and say:

It’s not rudeness of others that stresses you out, it is your reaction to what you think is rudeness that stresses you out.

Are you a presenter who gets stressed out – or pissed off – when you see people paying more attention to their electronic gadgets than to what you are saying?  Olivia Mitchell provides some insight to this in her article How to Handle a Texting Audience with an answer to the question, “Is it rude?”

Rude is in the mind of the beholder. Rude to you, not rude to them. To label a behavior as rude is to make a negative judgement about it, and that judgement will seep through in the way that you come across.

Your audience are adults. If their behavior is not distracting or annoying other people in the audience it’s up to them whether they pay attention or not, and how they pay attention.

Her advice: “If you want their attention, be more interesting than their cellphones.” It’s you, not them, that makes the difference.

As the parent of an autistic son, I’ve found myself in more than one situation where someone has become stressed about my son’s “rude” behavior. Of course, he’s not being rude, he’s just being himself. But people expect certain things from other people, and when they don’t get it they get upset.

In his new book Linchpin, Seth Godin addresses the question in a couple of short sections. In the one titled Teaching Fire a Lesson, Seth writes:

Fire is hot. That’s what it does. If you get burned by fire, you can be annoyed at yourself, but being angry at the fire doesn’t do you much good. And trying to teach the fire a lesson so it won’t be hot next time is certainly not time well spent.

Our inclination is to give fire a pass, because it’s not human. But human beings are similar, in that they’re not going to change any time soon either.

And yet, many (most?) people in organizations handle their interactions as though they are in charge of teaching people a lesson. We make policies and are vindictive and focus on the past because we worry that if we don’t, someone will get away with it.

It doesn’t do any good to get mad at fire, and it’s not any more useful to get mad at autistics, or anyone, who annoys you. As Seth writes in the section Annoyed at Intent:

If you accept that human beings are difficult to change, and embrace (rather than curse) the uniqueness that everyone brings to the table, you’ll navigate the world with more bliss and effectiveness. And make better decisions, too.

I have been as guilty of all of these things as anyone else through the years, and I’m working to improve (though I still get way too annoyed in traffic). Whenever I start to find myself getting annoyed, I take a deep breath and step back from the situation for just a moment to figure out what it is that is really bothering me.

Try it. You’ll be amazed at how much it helps.