I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 55 November 2001





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Next Feature - Knowledge Digest


Disappearing Knowledge
Are Exit Interviews The Wit's End??

David J. Skyrme

In the recent discussion that I led on Knowledge Strategies in the AOK Star series (for details of the Association of Knowledge Work and its excellent discussions see http://www.kwork.org) several slightly off-topic but nevertheless interesting discussions took place. One featured the challenge of capturing knowledge from leavers. We have a phrase in English that you are at your wit's end when you don't know what to do. And that is often what happens when a star performer hands in their resignation to move somewhere else, if their organization does not have a KM project in place to systematically capture some of their knowledge through all the time they work there. The problem also arises at times of economic slowdown like the present, where every day brings another story of hundreds - sometimes thousands - of people being made redundant as their organization downsizes. As business recovers - or even before it does - it is often realized that some key knowledge walked out of the door, with longer-term cost and performance impacts.

People As Assets Not Costs

What started the discussion on exit interviews was my thinking about two interconnected incidents from personal experience with a client during the first week that the discussion on strategy took place. One was positive feedback on an After Action Review that I ran, so that a new team of in-house content managers could gain insights from a team of consultants who were about to leave. This prompted someone else to ask, based on some reading of a draft KM strategy in which various techniques were outlined: "shouldn't we capture some of Derek's knowledge before he leaves at the end of the month"?

I recall when first researching best practice in KM in 1996, one of the principles of a Big 5 consultancy saying how he had convinced the partners to invest $10 million to kick-off its KM programme. Paraphrased, his argument went something like this: "It was a simple back of the envelope calculation", he said. "We're growing at 25 per cent a year" (Ed - don't most consultancies wish they could say that today - though I know a few who are!!) "we lose around 15 per cent of our people in a year. That means 40 per cent of our staff in any year are new recruits. Getting them up to speed is a time consuming and costly exercise, more than $50 million a year. So if we could systematically capture knowledge from existing staff, and make it easily available to new recruits, think of the savings we make in this area alone, if their time to full effectiveness was reduced by a few months".

Unfortunately most companies do not have such a realistic understanding of the value of people and their knowledge, and the cost to replace and grow it. Despite what many chairmen say in their company's annual report viz. "people are our greatest asset", it is often their cost on the profit and loss account that attracts more attention, so people are too often viewed as a cost to cut when times get tough.

The Exit Paradox

When confronted with the situation of losing key staff, many organizations face this paradox:

"the less you capture knowledge on a regular basis, the more you need to capture it at exit, yet the less likely you are to have the mechanisms in place to do so or the leaver's willingness to cooperate!"

It's a bit like the proverbial answer you get when asking someone directions: "Well, if I were you I wouldn't start from here".

In other words, although, if you play your cards right with a leaver who is willing to cooperate, you may rescue something, you are in much better shape if your strategy puts knowledge in people as a key focus, capturing some of their knowledge day in day out, leaving the exit period just to tidy up the loose ends.

Knowledge Capture on Exit

Here are some suggestions based on my expereince and some inputs from others.

  1. Start early - when people join! OK, let's be realistic. But start planning the hand-over as soon as YOU know when someone is about to leave (which may be before they know!). Identify recipients for the knowledge - ideally those who take on their responsibilities, but if replacements have not been appointed, identify people who will act as a time bridge.
  2. Plan the exit handover. In the month or more before they leave, work out a careful program that captures their knowledge of two types: explicit knowledge - typically in their idiosyncratic private folders and emails; and tacit knowledge - which either needs articulating, or transferring by interrogation and observing by their successors.
  3. For explicit knowledge. Make sure they move relevant material to shared folders or a document library. Ask them to create carefully pruned 'role' and task folders for their successor, and add helpful abstracts and comments. Don't automatically kill off their emails the day they leave and lose their folders.
  4. For tacit knowledge. Review the key tasks the person does (e.g. from a work plan, job description or annual plan - an annual plan triggers discussions of those activities that may be done only once a year but might not be at the forefront of one's mind at this time of year):
    • discuss how they go about those tasks - especially any pitfalls
    • identify what knowledge they need to succeed in what they are doing
    • ask for 'walk throughs'; even better if they can oversee their successor doing a walk through.
    Ideally, this should be done as a series of short sessions during the hand-over period.
  5. Find out what / who they felt were reliable sources for the knowledge they needed in their job. Often it is their people networks that are valuable assets.
  6. In many cases, having a knowledge worker spend a proportion of their time handing over and harvesting their knowledge properly during their last few weeks or months, will often give a much better return on their time than simply asking them to complete unfinished tasks.

Get Real!

Readers of these tips were quick to point out that much of the above depends on cooperation and motivation of the leaver. For many organizations it's a case of "too little, too late". Furthermore, if the person has been made redundant or has actively sought a better job, helping their erstwhile employer may be the last thing they want to do. Sometimes, an independent person in their organisation - not their boss, but a peer in another department - may be the best route to gather something from a 'lost cause'. However, a company that is truly people focussed, will often ensure that staff leave on good terms. I have known many situations where the 'greener grass' on the other side has not looked so wonderful after the person actually arrived. So maintaining good realtionships and keeping doors open can benefit both sides.

Things are somewhat easier when the leaver is a retirees, contractor / consultant or going freelance - you can always hire them back on occasions. But time mellows perceptions - even those who leave in a bad climate may well recall the good times with your organization earlier in their career. So the golden rule is keep in regular touch with your valued alumni. My old Oxford college (old in both senses of 'former' and 'historic', being over 400 years old) remade contact with me after over 25 years - though in their case I think it was more my financial than knowledge contribution that they valued!

Exit Interviews as part of KM

Many firms conduct exit interviews, but these are usually focussed purely on personnel factors. However, there is no reason why exit interviews should not be an integral part of a KM strategy and have knowledge capture as their focus. Some companies like HP do take this perspective. The following interesting articles by Pamela Holloway also focus on the knowledge capture perspective:

Leverage Exit Interviews to Collect Key Knowledge,

Exit Interviews: Tips and Techniques,

Stephen Denning, in the AOK discussion talked of Mining the Departing Mind at The World Bank. There a subject matter expert carries out a 2 hour interview, which is transcribed and put onto the intranet with added hyperlinks to relevant documents.

How seriously does YOUR firm take capturing the knowledge of people who are about to leave? And after they leave, do you still maintain contact or is the exit interview your wit's end?

Email: David J. Skyrme

© Copyright, 2001. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

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