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Knowledge Retention

The process of changing jobs has got me thinking a lot about knowledge retention. For the last few days I have been mainly trying to sort through all my ongoing projects at work, ready to leave and let someone else pick up where I left off. This has been further complicated by the fact that there are 3 brand new people in the e-access team, none of whom have worked in e-access before, and my line manager (head of e-access) is going on holiday next week and not coming back until after I’ve left. The task of getting the new people up to speed within the next three weeks, in addition to dealing with any random problems that crop up in the meantime, has therefore fallen to me – eek! I’ve never really had to train anyone before, so trying to teach other people how to do my job is pretty daunting.

Probably good experience though, and I am learning a lot in the process. Mainly, that I actually know a lot more about e-access than I thought I did! I guess I got used to being in the “new girl” role, and it hadn’t really occurred to me that I was learning as I went along. Training the new team members has reminded me that it actually wasn’t that long ago that I was in their position, convinced I would never grasp any of it. I think I’m gradually getting better at explaining things: I tend to be a bit scattered when it comes to passing on information – starting off in one place, realising another piece of the puzzle needs to be explained first, looping back and repeating myself – and this experience is forcing me to structure things a bit better.

I think the problem here is that my workplace has no strategy in place for retaining ex-employees’ knowledge. In fact, I don’t think anywhere I’ve ever worked has: I probably wouldn’t be aware of the concept at all if not for the module on “Information Management and Policies” in the first term of my MSc, which covered some of the issues surrounding knowledge management. The closest I’ve ever come across was being asked to compile a “desk guide”. I worked as an admin assistant for the MoD a few years back, and they required everyone to have a full breakdown of exactly what their jobs entailed: from daily, weekly and monthly tasks, right down to which draws they kept relevant files in and checklists of how to approach common problems/queries. I had to make one of these within my first month in the job, the idea being that if I was off sick for any length of time or, of course, if I left, then someone with no prior knowledge would be able to take over my job.

That kind of prescriptive, structured guide was really useful for what was a rather dull, repetitive and unimaginative job, but I don’t think it has much value for anything where you are expected to be able to think for yourself. I’ve tried to produce a few similar guides in preparation for leaving my current job – not guides to the whole job, just to certain common tasks – bit I don’t think it’s really producing anything useful. The problem is that there aren’t really any simple problems that can be solved by sticking to a formula. So much of the work is what I call “detective work”: digging around to try and find out what data is reliable and why things work (or don’t) the way they do. Any attempt to break them down into standard tasks would either be too general to be of any practical use, or too specific and littered with caveats and digressions to be readable.

So I suppose I’ll just have to keep on with what I’ve been doing so far: bringing things to the new team members’ attention as and when they come up, and having hands-on problem-solving sessions to give them some practice. You can’t really teach someone how to think creatively around a problem, so I think the learning-by-doing thing is the best approach.

As an aside: I was talking to my line manager this afternoon about how worried I was that I won’t have a chance to finish all the various things I’ve started since I’ve been here, and about how I was going to make sure that the various notes, emails etc. I’ve used to keep track of my work can be used by the new people. She said not to worry, because “this department was chaotic when you started here, and, well, it’s much less chaotic now, so thanks!” I think that’s the nicest compliment I’ve ever had!

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