Yesterday, I had the privilege of presenting a webinar to ITMPI, an organization that provides project management support for IT professionals. Our topic was Three Strategies for Capturing Retiring Expertise, and as is always the case, I learn a lot from the participants. Yesterday, the questions gave me a glimpse into some of the challenges they face.
In particular, some companies need to capture knowledge from large groups of people at the same time due to anticipated layoffs. When one company is encountering an issue, I expect other organizations face it, too. That makes it a ripe topic for discussion here.
Several large organizations I have spoken with over the past few months are doing mass knowledge capture assignments, one with 6,000 internal research scientists and another with engineers across a national system. These knowledge transfer challenges require process and standardization to make sure the work is done consistently and catalogued in a logical way. Most of this work requires tedious planning and particular execution.
The issue presented by yesterday’s webinar participants goes beyond those of systemized planning, organization and execution because the question is: How do you gather knowledge from experts en masse in anticipation of a round of layoffs? No matter how well you plan your knowledge capture efforts, you will encounter some resistance and resentment due to the nature of their separation. Most likely, some of the experts you are working with under these conditions are unwilling and unhappy.
In Working With SMEs, we discuss ways to handle The Reluctant SME and other experts who do not have the time or inclination to share their wisdom. But the problem of capturing knowledge from a group of people who are being separated adds a layer of complexity to the interaction.
While you can’t overcome the feelings of employees who are being laid off, you can implement a few strategies to help you work with them in a manner that is sensitive and respectful of their situation. They are, after all, facing at least a job change and at most a period of unemployment. They aren’t happy campers, but you can help set up a campground that smooths their transition.
Here are a few common sense ways to deal with capturing knowledge from a group of employees who are facing layoff:
1. Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening by avoiding the obvious, but don’t dwell on it either. You can’t solve the problem but you can empathize with workers. “I know this is hard for you. I (or my wife) was really scared when I (she) was laid off a few years ago.” Feeling understood helps reduce the sting for anyone who is angry, depressed or fearful.
2. Try to structure their remaining weeks or months to allow for some dedicated knowledge capture time so you don’t add the burden of another task to their regular workload while you are expecting them to continue to do their jobs effectively. Adding one more straw to the camel’s back can only increase their resentment and reduce their willingness to participate in your knowledge capture efforts.
3. Consider adding a bonus for working with the company to capture information about their role.
4. When the laid off group is large and concentrated, implement a corporate communications plan that informs employees about the company’s knowledge management plan and any other relevant information they need to know about their remaining time with the company. When people know what is going on, it reduces the rumor mill’s ability to cause strife and increases trust with supervisors and managers with whom the worker has relationships.
5. If, and only if, the workers may be called back, remain positive about keeping the company functioning and vital during their layoff period so it has the greatest chance of success.
When you are capturing information from experts who are not just reluctant – but being reluctantly separated from your organization – you face special management issues that go beyond implementing a good process for knowledge capture. If you have faced a similar challenge in your organization and would like to share your experiences, please comment below.