You’re in the middle of a major, company-wide software upgrade. Suddenly, your best database administrator tells you she’s accepted another job and will leave in two weeks.

This sort of thing happens often in the IT world. Organizations that reduce their work force or experience high turnover often suffer from gaps in knowledge—and as a result, their level of service—due to a break in their information chain. Staff reductions can lead to a loss of skills, strains on internal and external relationships, lower quality of products or service, reduced innovation, and decreased customer satisfaction.

But it is possible to prepare for such a crisis. Here are some suggestions on how you can retain the knowledge your employees possess—even after they’ve departed.

Where the knowledge gap begins
It’s common knowledge that the best employees, regardless of their skill set, are the most mobile. And when they pack up their family photos and ugly coffee mug, they also take with them a mass of skills, information, and experience that’s nearly irreplaceable at your organization.

According to the Massachusetts-based Giga Information Group, that knowledge becomes intellectual property when the potential is transformed into a product or service that would result in revenues for the company. Thus, it should be treated as an asset—just like products and services, operating equipment, or bricks and mortar.

Facilitating knowledge retention should begin on an informal level. Giga refers to this process as organic knowledge, whereby each person is a node on an often casual, and mostly undocumented, communications pathway that connects the organization through bi-directional and horizontal information flows.

Steve Theissen, owner of T-Sun Computers—a full-service IT consulting firm in Gold Beach, OR—knows all about the hardships that managers face when employees move on. In the remote area where his firm is located, IT workers are hard to come by, and he makes a point to communicate, both informally and often, with his staff.

“We meet three or four times a week in a casual manner to just go over what each others’ challenges have been for the last day or two,” he noted. “I find that helps us all to be aware of new, emerging technologies, and what the customers’ and end users’ problems are and how we solve them. Even though the Webmaster isn’t necessarily going to be a Novell CNE, both are certainly aware of what challenges the other is going through.”

A manager who encourages open communication is likely to see positive results in knowledge retention. As employees become more comfortable and familiar with one another, they’re more likely to share ideas and job experiences. Some managers have created peer networks to further knowledge sharing, which makes adaptation easier after a key employee leaves.

“It’s usually very hard to [replace employees] and very hard to plan for,” said Edwin Csukas, CIO and director of data services for New York City-based Cortel Business Services, Inc. , a systems integrator and telecom and data management provider. “My experience tells me you have to manage your department like a chameleon. If someone leaves a void, don’t necessarily think you’re going to fill that void with a single new person. You might divide his experience among existing staff or new employees, redistribute the workload among them to fill those needs.”

Csukas said that it’s equally difficult to familiarize new employees with internal processes, which are also an important aspect of knowledge retention.

“It’s not only that employees have the knowledge base, but it’s also the familiarity with the organization,” he said. “We’re lucky we haven’t had much turnover, but I don’t envy the new person who has to come in and get acclimated to the new environment, learn how the place operates, and deal with personalities on top of learning a new job.

Get it in writing
To augment informal knowledge retention efforts, many managers recommend creating a company intranet where knowledge is stored. This could include details about specific projects, notes from certification and training courses, and customer correspondence and communication logs. According to Giga, such a system should include the following:

  • Content with detailed explanations of the knowledge that is being communicated, free of acronyms or cryptic terms.
  • Dates that will help to determine how long the information is valid and timely.
  • Identification of key collaborators. If it was a solo project, include names of those who do similar work regularly.

Ongoing documentation of dealings with customers is essential to assure that the knowledge gap doesn’t let important relationships fall apart, says Rudolph Hoffman, president of RH Consulting Inc. in Littleton, CO.

“We track what’s going on,” Hoffman said. “For our clients who are on maintenance contracts, we provide an on-site binder that tracks their equipment, in detail, including work that was done, and work that needs to be done. It includes who did the work and on what day.”

He said each work order, even for clients not on a maintenance contract, includes a description of the problem and its fix. Back at the office, the techs enter the information into a work-order system.

“With this system we can search for keywords in either field,” Hoffman added. “Along with this, we are working on a new knowledge-tracking system. We hope to allow all staff to enter questions and answers they either have or have been asked. We also maintain a library of articles people have read or downloaded that have been helpful to them.”

Daniel Goulet, director of information systems and quality assurance for Kanalflakt Inc .—a heating and air product manufacturer in Bouctouche, New Brunswick, Canada—considers thorough documentation a part of an employee’s job, not just an afterthought. “Any segment of a project or product that may be considered complete is documented,” he said. “Even if it must be changed later on, it is a great starting point for the final documentation.”

Goulet has also found that in a fast-paced environment, other staff members must often jump midway into a project. And if no documentation exists, “the new member must sometimes start over or even do work that was already finished but no one knew about it,” he said.

To avoid wasting time and resources, Goulet’s staff follows the ISO 9001 Quality System standard. It demands, along with Kanalflakt’s company policy, that employees document each stage in the design process. “This includes customer requirements and changes to these requirements, meeting minutes, prototyping and design-review meeting minutes,” he said. “These all help in keeping the information of a project on paper instead of in someone’s head.”

Nothing’s guaranteed
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to see an employee walk away and leave everything he learned behind. Some knowledge can’t be conveyed in writing and therefore is probably lost forever.

“I haven’t found a way of documenting knowledge associated with a person’s skills,” Kanalflakt’s Goulet said. “That, I think, remains a purely human quality—for now.”

It is possible, however, for companies to experience a reduction in staff and remain competitive. To do so, they must reinvent themselves by fine-tuning their internal processes and constantly upgrading staff skills and capabilities, not in theory, but in practice. The more an organization knows about itself, the better it will be prepared for change.
Are you losing knowledge along with your employees? Do you have suggestions for avoiding this problem? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below. If you have a story idea you’d like to share, drop us a note.