Managing What People Know

I once got a call from a client where corporate knowledge was lost. The person calling me had found my number on a piece of equipment and wanted to know what the machine did. He was walking through a vacant floor of their office building, vacated after an extensive series of lay-offs, and discovered the machine humming away in a small room. I looked up the information and said I couldn’t really be of help as the client had their own team (now terminated) that had created an in-house sales solution. 

When you lead teams over five people, or where there is a sizable plurality of knowledge, skills, and abilities to maintain, a spreadsheet is a necessary tool. What has worked for me in the past is to keep a list of team members.

You want to manage the overall knowledge of your team so that you don’t end up losing capabilities because someone leaves. You also want to manage it to identify gaps or to develop new talent for future growth. In managing it you create a culture of knowledge where training, experience, and mentoring is spread to make everyone a high performer.

When I manage a team’s knowledge, I use a spreadsheet. It’s a matrix of each employee and each item of knowledge, skill, and ability pertinent to the business. Each person is graded accordingly, and in one view, you can see the risks and opportunities. The levels of proficiency are 0) none, 1) trained, 2) skilled, 3) experienced, and 4) gurus.

It is useful to create a distribution to look at overall team health. A critical-function team, of highly-specialized capabilities (usually small), can be an inverted pyramid consisting mostly of gurus, with lesser numbers of lower proficiencies for continuity planning from absences/turnover/promotions. Large operations with highly-standard or repeatable functions are typically a pyramid distribution, have one or two gurus at the top and a large number of people being trained and brought into skilled proficiency; often areas with high turnover or entry positions before promoting to more specialized functions. Lastly, the more capable and organic team will be an inverted blunted diamond distribution, where the bulk of mastery will be in the middle (skilled) with few in a trainee position.

Failing to manage knowledge means reacting to foreseeable situations with sizable and lasting gaps in capabilities. The loss of a person will usually require others to absorb the workload, and if not spread out over enough people, it’ll precipitate additional losses. 

When you anticipate changes in the business, managing corporate knowledge builds the capabilities to exploit the opportunities from change. You can then hire people that have secondary proficiencies you could leverage, or put people on stretch assignments to cross-train into new areas. Your corporate knowledge often your greatest asset.

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