Earlier this month, Emergency Management Magazine posted an article by Jim McKay titled ‘Is a Lack of Institutional Knowledge Plaguing Emergency Management?’. It’s a thought-provoking article on a topic that is relevant to a great many professions. This is an issue that deals primarily with retirements, but broadly any matter that involves a line of succession. Not only might someone retire, which is usually, but not always an anticipated event, but they may take or get transferred to a new position, require an extended sick leave, get fired, or even have an untimely death. In any event, I’m a firm believer that succession should be planned for any situation, and for nearly every position – especially one that’s grown and evolved over time with the individual occupying that position.
If it’s anticipated that someone will be retiring or otherwise leaving, organizations may have the ability to hire or identify a replacement while the person is still there, providing an opportunity for a mentorship. For as rare as this is, it’s even more rare for that mentorship to be structured or anything but throwing a bunch of paperwork, files, and brain-dumping knowledge at the replacement. If the departure of the individual isn’t planned, the organization can be left in the lurch. People hopefully know what that person does, but likely not how they do it. What are the priority tasks? How often do they need to be completed? What is the standard of performance for these tasks? Who are the primary contacts? Where can critical files be found? What do I do if…???
Organizations have an opportunity to hedge against this. Just as we prepare for disasters, we can prepare for someone vacating a position. We know it will inevitably happen, so there is no excuse to not prepare for it. Organizational leadership should promote this effort, spearheaded by human resources. Checklists and guidance should be developed that cover all aspects of transferring institutional knowledge – from the mundane and practical, to the applied work. This is a deliberate effort, just like developing an emergency operations plan, and an effort that nearly all positions should be involved in.
For a planned departure, two viable options are a job-share or a structured mentorship. Both obviously require the organization to commit to overlapping staffing for this position for a period of time since the outgoing and incoming individuals need to work together. This provides the most effective means of transferring institutional knowledge. As indicated earlier, these efforts need to be structured, not just a daily data dump. Use the ‘crawl, walk, run’ concept, giving the incumbent foundational information at first and building from there. While process is important, there may be some processes that really fall to individual style, so the focus should be more on intent, sources of information, deliverables, and collaboration. Hands-on experience, as many of us know, is extremely valuable. The new individual should be going to meetings with the outgoing person, conducting site visits, and participating in other activities. This also offers an opportunity for introductions to be made to important colleagues and other contacts.
The incumbent should also have face time with their new boss, direct reports, and other interested parties. This is important to ensuring that expectations of these important stakeholders are communicated directly to the person who will be working with them.
An important tool that should be developed by almost every position is a job book. This is a written document that outlines every critical aspects of a position. Starting with the job description and working forward from there. Fundamentally, this is a simple task, but can take some time over a period of months to develop, and of course it should be kept up to date. It should identify priority tasks and how they are accomplished, key interactions and contacts, reporting relationships, standards and templates, information sources, deliverables, and due dates. Each individual should step outside their position and imagine that someone new, who knows little about the position, will walk in tomorrow to take over. This document should take that person through all important tasks.
The job book has several benefits. First, it helps provide structure to any possible mentorship or job share that might take place for a planned departure. It strongly supports an unplanned departure as well as an organization that might not be able to provide for any type of overlap between the outgoing and incoming individuals. Job books are something I recommend not just for managers, but for most staff, even administrative support staff – It’s amazing how many organizations come to a screeching halt when a key administrative specialist leaves.
Lastly, beyond the process-driven and official things, never underestimate the value of social interactions. There is a great deal of knowledge transfer that comes from the time of enjoying a meal or a beverage with someone. While this time might be ‘off the books’, it should absolutely be encouraged and shouldn’t be a single occurrence. These offer good opportunity for some ‘war stories’ and open conversations outside of the office environment in which a great deal can be learned.
Bottom line – organizational succession should be viewed as an aspect of continuity of operations. It requires planned and deliberate activities to be most successful.
What kind of program does your organization have?
© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP