Thursday, 16 October 2014

We can't afford to lose you, please stay. Hey wait, where are you going??!

I’ve spent the last few weeks capturing lessons for a large engineering client.  In all we identified 43 high-level, high-impact lessons from a recent project.  My part in the process is over.  What should now happen is that the lessons are assigned to people that can get the ball rolling in terms of implementation – i.e. actually changing things as a result of the recommendations we made.

(A guide to the 10 steps in the life of a lesson starts here.)

The detailed content of the lessons is a matter for the client alone, given the need for confidentiality.  However, I was struck by the many ways in which one can view the issues encountered on projects and, in particular, ‘sticking plasters’ are often proposed over solutions that will endure.
Whilst this tendency was apparent across a range of issues, I’ll focus on those areas where my own discipline can help.
To summarise some of the problems encountered:
·        A number of people with very specialist knowledge and experience left the project during the planning stage;
·        Replacements were very hard to (a) identify and (b) recruit;
·        The project’s execution phase was prolonged, necessitating a handover between 2 teams.  The second team, lacking the experience and continuity of the first, proved less capable and required close supervision.
Initial attempts to propose solutions to these problems resulted in the following suggestions:
·        Pay specialists more money, to make it less likely that they will want to leave (i.e. either a general increase or a specific retention bonus upon completion of the project);
·        Amend contract terms to prevent specialists leaving without lengthy notice periods (Note: military terms of service often require personnel to give 6-12 months’ notice; in theory this enables the identification and posting of a suitably qualified replacement);
·        Overlap the 2 teams to create a prolonged ‘handover’, giving the second one more time to benefit from the experience of the first.
These are all very well but only this last one recognises that, at the heart of this issue, is knowledge and the need to retain it.  Other observations of mine include:
·        Paying specialists more money might end up being very expensive, increasingly so as rivals follow suit in what might well become a self-defeating competition; furthermore, to do so doesn’t address why such individuals are considered so valuable;
·        Amending contract terms also doesn’t do anything to reduce the value of such specialists either and, in an organisation lacking military discipline and ethos, might create the risk of essential people wishing to move on and resentful at not being permitted to do so; it would also create a perverse incentive for people to deny having certain ‘niche’ knowledge and skills;
·        With the costs of some specialist capabilities being what they are, a prolonged handover could be very expensive indeed.
We have looked at the issue of protecting knowledge before, as in this blog post.
Having framed the issue in this way, I then suggested that, as well as its original suggestions, the client should consider the following ideas – ideas that apply to all organisations that run projects:
·        Identify the critical knowledge areas at greatest risk of loss, usually through a Knowledge Scan;
·        Introduce processes to identify and retain such knowledge, through Knowledge Harvesting Interviews and Lessons Capture;
·        Synthesise and share such knowledge, by creating Knowledge Assets;
·        Ensure that such processes are resourced, supported and formalised, through a Knowledge Management plan.
For a conversation about these or any other KM services, please contact me directly or through the Knoco website.

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