The value of talent
Joe is the right hand of his team leader. He is what you might call a coder ninja. He has a decade and a half of experience behind his back in several programming languages. He sees through whole processes with ease, overcomes hard parts before breakfast, and singlehandedly defeats an army of bugs. One day Joe decides to leave the company.
The day after he left, things start to fall apart. There is not one team member, who can confidently say they have a good overview of the architecture they built together. It takes hours to find the source of the failures, and it’s not just the bughunt. Only the team leader has enough knowledge to define the tasks well, and she has her hand full with mentoring the others. Joe’s absence can be felt not just in the overall mood, but in the gap of the workflow and in specific tasks.
It’s not just his person that is lost – his knowledge as well. His leaving has left the company unprepared for the months to come.
Routes of organizational learning
In understanding of the hardships that happened after Joe’s decision, it is important to revisit often overlooked facts. Like what talent and knowledge are. Let’s not dwell deep into the magical world of definitions. To keep it simple: talent is someone, who does their work better than others of their field. Knowledge is the information of doing stuff the right way. Talents hold the most important knowledge: the best practice.
Fortunately other team members can learn much by collaborating. But not everyone has equal chances. The farther one is from the talent in the workflow, the less opportunity one gets. (Actually, that’s why mathematicians invented the Erdős number.) The team leader Joanne, who had a constant connection with Joe, had much time to learn, that’s why she can take over the role of a scrum master for a short time. But the new trainee of the company had simply no joint tasks with Joe, so unfortunately, he had no chance to acquire anything of business value from Joe.
We are talking about routes of knowledge. Information flows from the direction of Joe to the ones he collaborates with. The members collaborating with Joe may in turn teach those who connect with them, etc. As we can see, these routes have steps – how far removed you are from Joe -, thus they have metrics, and can be used to create maps.
Maps of sharing knowledge inside the company, maps of organizational learning.
Mentors in knowledge management projects
Every map needs points of references, like how geographical maps have the magnetic north and south pole, east and west. Maps of organizational learning hold key talents and teachers as reference. Talents are meant to fight on the frontlines, not disturbed or slowed down by anything. Their knowledge must be distributed – and that’s the task and talent of the mentors.
Immediate neighbours of a mentor are the most fortunate ones, because they have the most chance to learn something new. The further one is from a mentor in one’s team, the less chance one has to learn from them.
This is why onboarding projects have designated mentors to connect directly to the new employees. Another way to temporarily shorten the routes is the workshop. Organizing workshops around the workflow may give everybody equal chances to learn something new. This may seem like a drag, but don’t forget: knowledge not shared is lost when the talent leaves the company.
Another way of saving best practice is the use of electronic systems.
Information systems for know-how sharing
Sometimes saving knowledge is as easy as writing a google doc of guidelines or conventions, or just sharing the recordings of a workshop. This is one of the most important steps in organizational learning, because the yet unreachable – so called tacit – knowledge of talents gets expressed and formalized – converted to explicit knowledge. However, knowledge won’t do any good to the team until it’s learned and implemented – reconverted into tacit knowledge in the team members.
It would not be enough to record a video of Joe working, and sending its link via an inside mailing list. Joe’s goals, choices and reasons must be clearly interpreted, explicitly stated, and heard by everyone. (This is the creation and sharing of explicit knowledge.) After that, every team member has to try it out, implement relevant aspects in their daily work, etc. (This is the conversion into tacit knowledge.)
Organizing such studies is the job of yet another mentor. These mentors do not need to be talent, they just need to be good enough to interpret the hoarded up experience.
It always comes down to mentors
Mentors are key figures, just the same as talents. They interpret, learn and distribute the knowledge that makes the talent. Finding a mentor is an easy job: you just have to ask everyone about who they’d nominate as a mentor. On the downside, you do have to ask everyone, and that is not a short task. Thus it is often neglected, and the absence of mentors won’t be noticed until key talents leave the team. In hindsight Joanne grieves for the the missed out opportunities to learn from Joe. Next time she won’t be so easygoing.
Lucky for her, after a good five minutes of Googling, she finds out, that there are automated tools to find mentors in her team. CX-Ray solutions help her find team members the others usually ask for help. Colorful and intuitive visualizations show the best candidates, while research-based and benchmarked texts help her get even deeper insights. These tools only take 3 minutes from every team members time, and after the project is closed, they give back instant results.