Are Exit Interviews The Wit's End??
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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):
Ideally, this should be done as a series of short sessions during the
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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