System driven processes vs People driven processes

The biggest risk organizations face now and over the next 3-5 years is the loss of corporate knowledge as baby boomers retire. It will expose our reliance on people-driven processes and highlight gaps that are left.

Up until recently, I’d always been part of very dynamic and fluid teams. In those environments, almost everyone rotates in and out of jobs every two or three years, so writing things down, creating Coles notes and 101 guides, or what the military would call Standard Operating Procedures is second nature. Those organizations become experts at handing over roles and responsibilities so that someone could just come in tomorrow and in theory, carry on where you left off. They are designed and built around system driven processes. They are not rigid, and there’s lots of room for flex, initiative, and change. But the foundation is built on an accessible and easily understood system. It’s not buried in someone’s head.

But unfortunately, many organizations aren’t. And in a lot of cases, the pendulum has swung way too much and organizations survive exclusively on people-driven processes, relying on a select few who have all the corporate knowledge and historical  background. When they’re not available to answer questions the system stalls. That is a huge risk and not sustainable. It doesn’t matter how good you are, one day you’ll not be there or here…

So here’s what we need to do:

Create a Knowledge Library.

A collection of the key documents that someone needs to do their job. In it’s simplest, and arguably most effective form, it is a list with links to documents and a brief summary of what they contain and why they’re important to do the job. The key part here is that this isn’t something that should be done as people close in on retirement. It should be done as routine, updated monthly and managed just like a library is. Different sections that anyone can look up. For specific issues or topics  you should create short ‘discussion papers’ that cover all the key factors and detail the analysis that has happened in the past. These topics should be derived from a thorough brainstorming session with your team that asks the question – what are the top 10 major issues we have faced over the past decade and how did we deal with them.

Create transfer of knowledge documents.

These are your handover notes and explain clearly and succinctly how you carried out the key areas of your job. Who did you need to speak to, what procedures did you need to follow etc. As people begin their transition and handing over their positions, the incumbent will use this as a guide. Again, this is a document that should be done as routine,  even if there isn’t a handover expected in the near future. It allows processes to continue when you’re not there. A good place to start is a stakeholder identification chart and a power/interest analysis. This should be a common document within any team. This helps develop outreach strategies for leaders and teams at all levels, and importantly answers the question – who do I need to talk to when faced with problem x.   If you have that answer, solutions are always possible.

Simple steps that take resources, discipline and time to implement. But balancing system driven processes with corporate knowledge is the best and only way to ensure a long-term sustainable future.

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