In my last couple of weeks at AED I was trying to think about what I could do to make the job of my successor as easy as possible and in the process, wondering about organizational memory and what happens more generally when people leave an organization. The reverse, what happens when people enter a new organization and need to be brought up to speed is also of interest to me at the moment since I will be transitioning into a position in a new organization.
I see huge potential both for knowledge loss and new learning opportunities. The losses seem to be concentrated with the organization left behind and the new opportunities primarily with the departing employee. Clearly, it takes a while for a new employee to be fully on-board and able to contribute, so there is an investment on the part of the hiring organization. At the same time, the new employee is potentially a source of very valuable knowledge. The new employee's questions, reflections, and analysis of the new situation they are thrown into can provide clues related to the organization's operations that are invisible to those working within it and can provide clues related to how the organization is perceived by outsiders. In other words, could a fresh pair of eyes be useful to the new employer? If so, how can this be leveraged efficiently?
A traditional exit interview is conducted by the human resources department and is focused on issues related to employee satisfaction and supervisors. Sometimes, it also provides an opportunity for the employee to reflect on the job and offer helpful advice. The objective of such interviews is clearly to help identify potential problems and reduce employeed turnover. However, it has very little to do with trying to retain the employee's knowledge. For these types of exit interviews, it doesn't really matter if they are conducted on the last day of employment.
For long-time employees going into retirement, there are other approaches which can ensure that as much as possible of the retiring employee's knowledge is retained within the organization. That doesn't address the knowledge loss resulting from the changing nature of the workforce and the fact that younger generations don't expect to be working for the same employer for more than a few years and therefore may have more self-centered learning and knowledge strategies of their own.
My questions during my last couple of weeks of employment centered around relatively short-term issues:
- How will my successor and former colleagues find my files?
- What files do I leave and what do I take with me?
- For those projects that need to go on without me, how can I make it easy for those taking over to do so without wasting time and energy reinventing the wheel?
- How do I transfer important communication trails (emails) so that they do not disappear with my email account? Who do I transfer them to?
In the end, I didn't have much guidance on any of these issues and I made up my own answers.
Transition Acceleration Plan
Now that this exiting process is completed, I can start focusing on what happens when entering a new organization. It's probably impossible not to start thinking about that earlier -- at least once you've officially accepted a job. Based on past experience, I can say that getting to understand how things work, how things are done within an organization, can be a lengthy process. My goal in the coming months is going to figure out how to accelerate the process. Ideally, I would want to minimize the transition period -- the period of time during which I am absorbing knowledge -- being a sponge -- and contributing very little value. Perhaps I'll call it my transition acceleration plan. And perhaps a pair of fresh eyes can contribute value early on precisely because I don't know how things are done and I should be asking questions.
Some of these reflections were inspired by my recent reading of"Lost & Found: A Smart-Practice Guide to Managing Organizational Memory," by Peter Stoyko and Yulin Fang for the Canada Public School Service (2007).