Knowledge Sharing

One of the biggest problems most companies face is the loss of institutional knowledge when an employee leaves. As a consultant, I see this at every company I go to. If it isn’t from an employee leaving while I’m there, it certainly happens when I leave. I leave as much documentation as I can behind when I go about whatever I’ve done, but invariably there are little tasks that don’t get written up or get lost in the larger documentation.

When most people leave a position they have a week or two at most to do “knowledge transfer”, but that only occurs if the departure is amicable and it is never very thorough. Most companies, if they consider knowledge loss at all, frame it as the “hit by a bus” scenario since they never want to acknowledge any other reason a person might leave a company. This is, of course just denial. People leave and they take their knowledge with them. It doesn’t matter if the person is there for a week or two or twenty years, they likely have knowledge the company needs.

On many of my recent contracts, I’ve tried to help combat this. There are technological solutions to help ameliorate the loss of knowledge that comes with the loss of personnel. The primary tool I’ve been suggesting is the wiki. If you set up an internal wiki for your company and encourage its use, you can have easily accessible documentation for your IT department that will come in handy whether a person leaves, a new person comes in and needs to get up to speed or even if it is just an old project that needs revision. It doesn’t have to be just for the IT department either. Most departments in a company would benefit from having a wiki that lets the employees contribute to the institutional memory of a company.

Even more important than making the software available I’ve found, is getting management “buy-in”. If you can get management to encourage the use of the wiki, it’ll work well. If you can’t, it is unlikely to. The culture of the company needs to incorporate encouraging everyone to update the wiki with relevant information. They need to be actively encouraged to do it at all levels and management has to understand that it takes time to make the updates. Convince them that it’ll save time and effort in the long run and you have a shot.

Ideally, especially in larger companies, you’ll be able to hire or assign someone to manage your wikis. Someone who can help people when they have problems with it and who can maintain the software. If used well, there can even be sections of the wiki set aside for non-company business that fosters a sense of togetherness whether it is a section for company announcements or a place to handle announcements that are currently sent out through emails like birth and wedding announcements.

Another system that works well for knowledge sharing is shared bookmarks. I like the site Delicious. It has an easy to remember address: del.icio.us and is easy to use. Just set up an account for your company or for the departments in your company and provide the user name and password to everyone. You’ll likely want an administrator for this so your pages don’t get clogged up with lolcats links and other non-business information, but this too can provide good resources for your employees.

If this goes well, blogs or discussion rooms can be set up to encourage collaboration and further knowledge sharing while cutting down on time spent in meetings. Weekly team meetings can be supplanted with blog posts and comments. OK, that’s likely more of a dream since I know how managers love their weekly meetings, but it could at least supplement them!

It is likely best to pilot these programs within the IT department as they’re the staff most likely to already be comfortable with the tools involved. Once it has been shown to work there, it can be spread through the company to other departments.

If used well and used by all you won’t have to worry as much when someone gets a job offer closer to home, for more money or leaves for any reason at all. It isn’t a complete replacement, but it can help ease the transition.

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