Mass Layoffs and Your Knowledge Capture Plan

bench-accounting-49908  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.

Valuable Knowledge Worth Preserving


From the turn of the 20th to the turn of the 21st centuries, humankind experienced the greatest leaps in technological advances in recorded history. From horse-drawn buggies to space travel, human intelligence and creativity took us from a plodding, linear existence to soaring, exponential possibilities. Books like Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock first chronicled this geometric explosion of knowledge to Peter Diamandis’ Bold and Abundance took us the rest of the way toward the melding of humans and machines to remake the humanity that brought us here.

No need to recount those books or to re-tread that ground here. Rather, recognize that the same human knowledge and creativity that got us here will get us there. So with the rapid acquisition of new knowledge – some estimates say knowledge now doubles every two years – it is important that we identify our journey and catalogue it individually and collectively.

We live in the greatest transfer of knowledge in all of human history.

The whole of human knowledge is a big bite for anybody, especially you and me operating in isolation. However, taken one person, one company, one organization at a time, we can preserve what we’ve done so we can replicate it. To many practitioners at the organizational level, that is a training function. But a full knowledge capture goes beyond the practical and immediate application of developing a training program for employees to continue best practices. Each organization has a history, a culture and knowledge that went before that may have lost its current relevance but not its importance. It is that broader vision of knowledge capture that this book addresses.

As we rapidly move toward artificial intelligence and computer-generated activities that simulate human functions, it behooves us more than ever to preserve the knowledge, skills and attitudes that makes us essentially human if for no other reason than to create an accurate history.

Having defined your vision and the mission, preserve corporate knowledge, assess your circumstance and judge the value of what you would labor and spend valuable resources to capture.

What valuable knowledge are you preserving?

Please comment below and tell us about your contribution to human wisdom.

Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Are Traditional Experts and NextGen Experts Different?

 john-mark-kuznietsov-174918 1950s: The astrophysicist of yesteryear studied in relative isolation, probably in an exclusive school gleaning formulae from weighty tomes speaking almost exclusively among (usually) his limited universe of peers. Very few understood or related to his comprehension of relativity.

Today: The astrophysicist delivers online classes from MIT widely available on MOOC platforms watched by your curious and precocious 12-year-old. Your son or daughter jumps on social media to post a cool link to the lecture.  Friends “like” it or comment that s/he is a nerd or a rocket scientist or give your child some other widely acknowledged nod of approval. The NextGen astrophysicist is in the flow of like minds.

Two radically different cultural and educational milieu are going to produce two very different individuals. An experience of isolation and exception versus an experience of community and commonality will affect the human personality, both how they see themselves and how they see their place in the world.

A Traditional Expert will carry the experience all his life of being exceptional, being misunderstood and being isolated from the mainstream. A NextGen expert swims in the social flow connecting easily with peers from the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and Germany.

Not All Experts are Astrophysicists

The above example is extreme. Your experts will come from all backgrounds and fields of study. Your Traditional Expert may be the nurse who has been there for 30 years, the machinist who has run that lathe since he graduated from high school or the chemist in your lab who hasn’t looked up from his beaker since Reagan left office. All of them grew up in the same environment of relative isolation and exclusivity in their domain. That is, relative to the widely available, global and instantaneous communication and education of the NextGen of experts who will carry the torch of knowledge forward.

Due to the instantaneous communication and rapid proliferation of ideas, it is estimated that knowledge now doubles about every two years. That, too, changes the nature of experts because no expert remains one for very long.  

These changes have implications for learning, teaching and working styles that impact the way you collect and transfer expertise in your own organization.

Expect a few things from  NextGen Experts:

·         knowledge is widely dispersed and they are open and generous with their knowledge

·         experts commonly explain what they know openly and share it widely

·         expertise is not exclusive

·         knowledge not widely shared is not valuable

·         transfer of knowledge is open sourced and curated

·         learning is tailored to the task, the learner and the environment in which they apply it

What are differences you see between the Traditional Expert and the NextGen Expert? Please comment below.


From the Mailbag: Working with Generation Z or Post 9-11 Babies Go to Work


In this space, we usually focus on the knowledge capture part of your knowledge management plan, specifically working with your soon-to-be-retirees so their expertise isn’t lost to some golf course in Tampa. The flip side of knowledge capture is transferring that information to generations two or three removed. That brings us to the realization that babies born after the year 2000 are entering the workforce this year.

And yes, they are different.

One of our faithful Working with SMEs tribe, Hal Alpiar from bucolic Cookeville, Tennessee, sent us an article entitled “What You Need to Know About Generation Z” with seven helpful tips for maximizing your Gen Z workforce. The article is from AMAC Small Business Solutions dated July 11, 2017, and Hal popped it in snail mail along with one of his cute refrigerator magnets “Are You Breathing?”. Hal is a marketing and training guru who occasionally pitches in around here with advice and support, including his business mentoring.

Here is an excerpt from the AMAC article which you can read in its entirety at this link:

“Much as Generation X didn’t get the same attention baby boomers did, [Generational expert David] Stillman believes the current focus on millennials could leave Generation Z feeling ignored and misunderstood…Stillman says the main thing to know about Gen Z is that they’re not like the millennials.

1.       They want frequent feedback. ..Quick check-ins can be plenty for Gen Z workers.

2.       They seek security…They’re willing to start at the bottom and work their way up, as long as they can expect job security in return.

3.       They’re very competitive…Generation Z employees are more likely to prefer working on their own.

4.       They want to personalize their jobs…The more flexibility and customization your company can offer these workers, the better.

5.       They may be entrepreneurs as well as employees…The ease of starting a side business today appeals to Gen Z’s desire for financial security…Try harnessing Gen Z’s entrepreneurial spirit to create new ideas , products or divisions for your business – and rewarding them for it financially.

6.       They suffer from FOMO. Constantly scanning social media to see what everyone else is doing, Generation Z is suffused with “fear of missing out”…Gen Z may prefer trying out many different jobs or moving laterally to gain new skills…

7.       They’re “phigital”…They expect your business to have the latest technology (just like they do in their personal lives). If you’re at all behind technologically, they’re not likely to want to work for you.”

As you create your knowledge management plan and consider your methods for information and data transfer, look at your youngest workers’ styles and preferences when you shape your knowledge management plan for Gen Z.  After all, they will be fully in charge of your business by the middle of this century.

Thanks to Hal for thinking of us. If you want one of Hal’s “Are You Breathing?” magnets, email him at and tell him you heard about him at the Working with SMEs blog.

We look forward to your comments below.

Do Your Experts Have “Beginner’s Mind”?

203714“None of our men are ‘experts.’ We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job. A man who knows a job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives up an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible. The moment one gets into the ‘expert’ state of mind a great number of things become impossible.”
Henry Ford

Henry Ford is also the entrepreneur who said if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse.

Inventors, engineers, and designers around Ford had the luxury of the support of a boss who believed nothing is impossible. That frontier spirit imbues technology and business now. The world is awash in Fords.

The question is whether the world is also drowning in experts. And the answer is no. A true expert remains cutting edge, and we are accumulating knowledge at such a rapid pace the edge continues to move as you approach it. Your background, education and experience only qualify you for asking good questions in a world where knowledge doubles every two years.

Encouraging Beginner’s Mind

The beginner’s mind sees things as if for the first time. A new approach lives in the novelty. While Ford imagined his customers as the uninvolved and passive consumer, that is not the case today. What’s changed in the last 100 years is that we now encourage our developers and designers to stay close to the buyer and listen carefully to the voice of the customer. The consumer of the 21st century is educated, sophisticated and trained to challenge the status quo.

Your customers experience your products with beginner’s mind, and use them in some contexts you may not have imagined. Employees from sales to delivery to design and engineering are encouraged to stay close to the customer and listen for their responses and recommendations.

If your experts are truly living up to their name, they know less every day. But they are smart enough to know it.

Once again proving that Ford was a man quite a bit ahead of his time.


EDITOR’S NOTE: One of our Working with SMEs tribe writes to me to relay the following: “The quote that leads your most recent SME mail. . .(t)hat is usually attributed to Roshi Suzuki, the guy who bought Zen to the US, with his book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” And “Beginner’s Mind” is a Zen concept.” Thanks, Joe! Nice to hear from you!

Preserving the Spark: Downsizing, Mergers, Buyouts and Other Knowledge Capture Triggers


It’s one thing if your valuable employees leave you for another job or for retirement. That one thing is that you really had no control over the event. The decision and probably the date was the employee’s decision and your company had little control over the timing or the circumstances.

It is quite another thing when you plan your employees’ departure through downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, buyouts, cost-cutting, or some other self-imposed staff reduction. That other thing puts you in a position that gives you some control over timing and circumstances. When it is your decision, you can give yourself time to ensure an orderly off-boarding or separation that includes preserving your valuable knowledge assets.

If you are in a position to control your employees’ separation, take the opportunity to put organization-wide knowledge transfer plans in place. The day of the exit interview is not the time to find out what you need to know from them for business continuity.

When you are organizing a mass layoff or initiating any other planned employee departure:

  1. Create a list of mission-critical employees and dates of separation.
  2. Determine what they know as far in advance as possible – at least 3 to 6 months before their departure – so you aren’t blindsided by having them take two months of accrued vacation before their official departure date.
  3. Have a standardized plan and best practice for working with departing employees that includes collection methods, who is responsible for working with them, what assets you need based on their role, how and where the knowledge will be stored, and how it will be transferred and used by others.
  4. Ask departing employees to review and sign off on the knowledge.

Just because your organization is in a position to put a knowledge transfer plan into place does not necessarily mean that it will. Often, it is an individual employee who feels a sense of obligation to the company and sees the need for knowledge collection and transfer that may institute their own knowledge management plan.

Two Stories

Here are two stories that came to me recently of employees who took personal responsibility for knowledge management in their divisions.

Story One

One woman who read my book Finding Your SMEs: Capturing Knowledge from Retiring Workers Before They Leave several months ago said she told her brother about it who had just retired from a division of a global food manufacturer and distributor. He told her that he had seen the problem first hand. Before he retired last year, he took it upon himself to survey the knowledge within his division, collect and preserve it. He came up with his own plan to make sure he left his employer with the critical knowledge they would need to find after he was gone.

Story Two

I just spoke with another woman last week who said she oversees the knowledge management plan for a division of the federal government. She’s been traversing the country working her multi-year plan to capture what the unit will need long-term. Her plan and practices are confined to her division and we talked about the potential of standardizing her methods to other divisions.

“I started out in reactive mode,” she said. Now she describes her knowledge management plan as “an ecosystem. I’m always tweaking it.”

Her plan is all the more important now as the federal government is looking to reduce the workforce by 15 to 18 percent in the next year through attrition and buyouts. She said her 25 years with the department makes her eligible for a buyout, but she wants to stick around and finish the job she has started. She expects to stay with the division about five more years to put something solid in place.

“I am trying to leave a legacy to help the agency after I’m 10 feet under,”  she said.


Good as Gold

When you have employees who are looking out for your business continuity, those people can be the lifeblood of your business tomorrow.

If you don’t have a standard approach to knowledge management, support the efforts of those people who are looking out for you and doing the hard work of putting your knowledge management plan in place. Consider adopting and adapting their best practices to the rest of your organization.

These people are good as gold. Mine them.



Strategic Planning, Strategic Thinking and A Zen Mind Trick

Last week, we talked about critical thinking as a type of expertise, one that you can teach and grow quickly within your organization. One of the greatest values that a true critical thinker can bring to the organization is the ability to look without fear or favor at all parts of your business. That requires turning a bright light on a series of questions that will illuminate where you are and where your business is headed.


Your big picture thinking about your business and industry needs to include your knowledge management plan or, more specifically, what expertise you need to bottle and preserve to keep your organization running.

When it comes to your knowledge management plan, you need unblinking honesty about the state of your business and industry. Because, quite frankly, not everything or everyone that got you here will get you there. The future is moving faster than the average long-term plan, which is why long term planning has fallen out of favor to agile product development and rapid prototyping. Plans be d*****d. Your competitors have something coming off the proverbial drawing boards that can send your product off in another direction, or off the market completely.

A Zen Mind Trick

An article in SmartBrief this week, Learn the Art of Avoiding Action for the Sake of Action, highlighted the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking, and author Adriano Pianesi states, “Perhaps we’re ‘in the know’ enough to recognize that many consider the discipline of strategic planning to have long gone the way of the dinosaurs.”

Instead, he advocates strategic thinking as a response to the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world in which we conduct business and live. It’s a world that requires a bias toward action, informed action, but action nonetheless. Let me suggest it is informed action that still requires the type of long-view thinking more characteristic of strategic planning than agile rapid-response iteration.

I am a fan of rapid-response iteration within context. And it is that context that is driven from a deep understanding and analysis of the factors driving your business, your industry and the larger environment that is characteristic of strategic planning.

Critical thinking skills among leaders produce good decisions made within a framework that makes sense based on everything you know, and takes into consideration all the things you don’t know which is a Zen mind trick. And the list of things you don’t know grows longer every day, making those critical thinking skills even more critical.

Pivot and live to see another day.

Strategic Planning for Knowledge Management Course for the Working with SMEs Tribe: This is a Test

In our ever-expanding quest to spread the Working with Subject Matter Experts gospel, we test platforms beyond the blog  to get the message out. This week, we created a test course, Strategic Planning for Knowledge Management.

As a writer, I love to write so that is my go-to communication method. But you absorb information in different ways, so we like to play with other formats to help reach you and teach you where you’re at. We enjoy creating the podcasts and will probably keep them going in some fashion after our first season. In the meantime, I am developing a series of online courses and thought I would share a 10-minute sample of an introductory course with you here for your feedback.

Because this is a test, I realize the lighting and framing of the video is poor. That is the fault of me, the user, and my Internet connection. The actual platform and technology is really cool  and if you like the idea, I will refine it and spend some time improving the video on my end.

Content: Is this information helpful?

Audience: Will leaders in your organization find the information useful?

Format: Would this online course suffice in place of live workshops?

Value: Would you like to drill down in this topic of strategic planning for knowledge management and learn more about how to find your experts using this framework?

Platform: How about the platform? Do you like the slides plus video? Would it be helpful to add the text so you can follow along and read it (Of course, we will make formal courses 508 Compliant)? Would slides plus just audio voiceover be better?

We continue to welcome your comments and feedback. Some of you choose to reach out directly to us at and that works for us, too. We read everything and respond.

Thanks for following and sharing this information with others.


Elevating the Expert and the Critical Thinker in Your Business


The definition of an expert has been pretty clearly decided.  An expert has probably dedicated at least five full-time years to learning a subject, and may make tens of thousands of small judgments instantaneously when faced with an issue.

But what is a critical thinker, and what is the difference?

This question arises because I’ve often heard clients bemoan a perceived lack of critical thinking skills in employees within their organizations. The request is usually to develop training to sharpen critical thinking skills.

Some critical thinking skills are innate; you’ve met people who have an analytical mind and naturally parse any situation to figure out what is going on and how to solve a problem. Critical thinking skills can be taught, too. You can teach people to think using validated analytic methods. You can teach people how to think in a linear fashion and consider new perspectives.

While critical thinking skills and expertise are not the same thing, they can both be learned. Expertise takes time to acquire and critical thinking skills require applying concentration to the task.

You can be a critical thinker without being an expert. You may have great analytical ability but no real deep knowledge of any particular subject.

You can be an expert without being a critical thinker. Think of certain types of expertise that are innately intuitive or creative that call for mostly right-brain activity.

Most experts are probably critical thinkers. Even if they don’t realize it, experts are usually applying a series of tests to their area of expertise to make decisions whether it is an artist deciding to use a splash of red in a painting or an executive deciding to pursue a particular contract.

Critical Thinking as a Type of Expertise

Many organizations who are experiencing the flight of baby boomers into retirement are concerned about losing valuable expertise that would be difficult or impossible to replace. The people who know your business and your customers intimately have inestimable value. Sometimes you don’t know who they were or what they knew until they are gone.

Organizations do not have to lose critical thinkers, however. Critical thinking is an art and a learned skill.

If you think your company suffers from a lack people able to analyze a situation and able to make a good decision, that is easily solvable.

Many leadership programs teach critical thinking and arm their executives with analytic skills. It’s important to start at the top with those people who are steering the ship. Let me suggest that it is just as important to teach the process of logical thinking farther into the organization right down to where the work is done and where the employee meets the customer.

The value of good critical thinking skills and the ability to make decisions in the moment have impact at the point of greatest influence. So while you are working with your experts to capture and transfer their knowledge, don’t forget to reinforce that knowledge by arming your employees with the ability to make good decisions in the moment, at the point of greatest influence, while the product is being made and the customer is being served.

Critical thinking skills enhance the value of all your other training, and can be built into training programs as part of your learning strategy. After all, mastering the art of making good decisions is a type of expertise and it is a transferable skill to all areas of your organization.

Think about it. Let us know if you have considered the value of critical thinking skills for all your employees.

We welcome your comments below.

Training Coordinator, Project Manager and Instructional Designer – Who’s Who?

As a project matures, roles may become blurred. Often, it makes sense as the strengths of some bleed over into related roles, and other team members reach capacity. Smart teams are flexible and adapt to get the job done well no matter the role to which each person is officially assigned.

For teams who are building training programs, often team members grow from one role into another so they can overlap  serving as writers, designers, graphic artists, project managers, team leads and client managers.  The Training Coordinator is a person who has often walked in many of those shoes.

A Training  Coordinator combines several roles and goes beyond them.

A project manager plans and conducts events, coordinating  the people and the schedule to accommodate tasks and mitigate risk. An instructional designer oversees responsibility for the way a program will be executed to meet the needs of the client. A Training  Coordinator does all those things – and more.

A coordinator works closely with the client to conduct the needs analysis and is involved in planning how to meet those needs, understands and oversees all the roles involved in the project, and can work with the designers, artists, writers and experts who are working together to create a great program. A Training Coordinator is the main client interface, and the role goes beyond management and building training to acting as the conductor of the movement.

The coordinator has strong people in each role, and it is a task that requires laying your reins on loose so everyone can excel at their jobs. In fact, we might posit that a Training Coordinator is almost invisible but has a strong vision.

If you have used the role of Training Coordinator in a project, we’d love to hear from you.

What worked? What didn’t? What could you have done better or what could you have eliminated from the role? What is the best background for someone acting as the Training Coordinator?

We’re learning together, and we enjoy hearing your experiences.

Thanks for reading! Please comment below.