It’s what you don’t know…
I can state without seeing your business, or knowing your staff, that a lot of the information required to run your business is not in your manuals, policies, procedures, and training material. What I most often find is that staff have worked their way around, over, under and through all the little problems they face to get what they need done in a timely fashion. This is not wrong. In fact staff should be applauded for their desire to get the job done in the simplest way possible. It becomes a problem however, when unknown becomes lost.
The danger of undocumented knowledge
There are some very real concerns with ‘institutional knowledge’ that lives in the minds of staff, and not on the operations manual pages, that cause unintended issues down the line. Let’s say for example that your account’s staff have worked through all the problems they face and have developed a simple, concise and well understood means to get their ever-growing workload done. It produces few errors, saves the business time (and money) and so long as there are no long-term changes it continues on its way.
Change… is the only constant
Now though, something changes. For example, Joe your senior accounts person finishes his accounting degree and moves on. That system that was working perfectly comes under stress it was not designed for as people take on or move to new tasks. The flow-on effects are immediate and what once worked well now needs to find the new version of normal. People share information, taking time out of their day and out of the day of the person learning the task. Productivity falls away sharply while staff stress rises. You’re not happy, their manager is not happy and they’re sure are not happy. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to reach the new version of normal and restore things to ‘something like’ what you had before ‘Joe’ left. But the ‘problem’ that you’ve discovered is not Joe’s fault. Joe didn’t steal the keys, or take the only copy of the manual. Joe simply left the building with a raft of knowledge he didn’t know had a value.
There’s no need for all the angst…
Soft knowledge is what Joe left the building with. It was all in his head. THat soft knowledge is the ‘other’ often disregarded operating platform that your business runs on. Sure you need the Microsofts and the Apples of the computer world and whomever else you’re using to power your computers. Without your staff’s soft knowledge of your processes, software quirks, hardware oddities, vendor issues, timings, and a thousand other little items, your business can plumb new lows of productivity for long periods. That soft knowledge, gained through hard work, does not come for free. While you won’t pay a cost to use it today, you pay dearly each and every time you lose it due to a staff change, role change, internal move, promotion, or retirement.
So what can you do today?
The first step in capturing any form of knowledge is understanding that you don’t know everything that is going on in your business; you simply can’t unless you are a sole trader. The next step is to involve your leads, team leaders and managers. Motivate them to find the unknown steps, workarounds and processes that staff have put in place to make their lives better. Reward the leaders when they find these gems. Reward the staff when they explain how and why they put these changes in place. Reward staff again should they offer to write out the procedure for the manager. Whether that’s on a sticky note, notepad, email, Word document or whatever floats their boat. So long as they are seeking the soft knowledge out and writing it down.
Rewards do not have to be vacations, luxury yachts, cars or gold watches. What we’re talking here is a gift basket, a group morning tea, a reward ceremony at the next team meeting, anything that is meaningful to staff and shows your thanks for their participation. Keep this going until everyone has completed writing everything down. Until everyone has checked ‘their’ part of the processes in the manual and the training. Once all of that is done put the project to bed. Have a completion party the same as you should do with any other project.
It’s time to take the long view
Now that everyone knows how the game should be played, change the rules. Make soft knowledge capture a part of your business model.
- Why it is important to staff and the business (makes their life simpler and there’s cake!)
- What to look for and how to record it (give clear reporting paths, processes and make sure you reward according to value)
Include knowledge capture in all your training during on-boarding, process upgrades, changes, retraining and especially during restructures (making it a part of the companies reason for being). Remember that knowledge is like a garden – it requires care, feeding and watering to keep it growing and blooming. Find the people in your teams willing to take on the review challenge to ensure that changes from inside and from outside the business get updated regularly.
I want to leave you with a two summary thoughts:
- What we all should be doing as business owners is finding problem solvers. Anyone can find a problem, not everyone can find a solution to that problem. Solution finders are the gold in the pan. They empower your business to better the competition, react to change and find pathways to rewarding outcomes for customers and staff. Remember that staff don’t get much of a say in how the business runs. Often when they get the chance to leave, just like Joe, their last thought is of improving the processes and training staff to replace them.
- Knowledge that is not captured, nurtured and shaped into training materials, operating manuals and knowledge bases to allow you to recover from ‘Joe’ leaving your business is money down the drain. Soft knowledge is ‘stuff’ in your staff’s mind that helps make your business a success. While it is valuable to you often staff don’t realise that. Often this is because staff came up with the solution to make their life easier, they see it as a personal reward that has little business value. Rewards and acknowledgement make all the difference.
Let me know how you’ve implemented similar solutions in your business.