We’ve detailed how to use Emergency Knowledge Transfer (EKT) to mitigate talent risks in previous posts. My knowledge transfer team recently helped a client facing the challenge of the unexpected resignation of a business-critical expert, and the story of how the EKT process unfolded is a lesson in management’s ability to achieve quick, clear, and measurable reduction of the risk of critical knowledge loss.
Our client, a global provider of automation and information solutions, had learned that one of their key employees was giving his 30-day notice. This employee was a chief software architect, who held the vision for one of the company’s core software products in his head, with about 5 years of thinking behind him and 5 years of vision in front of him. He had gotten an offer to join another firm that he couldn’t pass up. Although this employee was moving on, he had great affection for the team he was leaving and didn’t want to burn any bridges. He was eager to leave everything as organized as possible for his colleagues.
My knowledge transfer team got the call on a Thursday and by Monday morning we held a kickoff meeting that included the expert who was departing, the three employees who would be carrying the ball going forward (the apprentices), their manager, and a consultant from my firm. Here are the actions they took:
- We started the Emergency Knowledge Transfer process by assessing the departing employee’s unique knowledge, and then built a basic Knowledge Silo Matrix (KSM)—a risk assessment tool—to reflect that. Given the urgency of the situation, the very next thing we did was to have the team analyze how many available hours the departing expert had left. Remember, the expert had given 30-days notice, so that sounds like lots of time, right? It turned out when we did the math—after subtracting vacation time that the expert would be using up, time spent on other project work that he had to finish, and travel time between the client’s global offices —the departing expert had only 41 available hours to transfer knowledge between kickoff and the day he was leaving.
- Next, we set aside time to write a Skill Development Plan (SDP) that would guide the team’s knowledge transfer actions, starting that Monday afternoon and again Tuesday morning. By the end of the day on Tuesday, we had written three master Skill Development Plans for the three knowledge silos where the expert had the most unique knowledge around the product architecture.
- Our next move was to look at the three apprentices. Using the master SDPs, we helped the client customize individual SDPs that showed skill-by-skill who would learn what. Decisions were made about which of the three apprentices would learn which of the skills the expert (now called a mentor) was going to teach. We also guided the client to prioritize the skills to be taught during the remaining 41 hours (a skill is defined as something you can take action to complete and can be taught by a qualified mentor in approximately one hour). There were more than 70 skills to be taught, but with only 41 hours we knew that we couldn’t cover everything. This inability to “do it all” is something businesses commonly face in these cases. So we worked with the client to prioritize which 41 skills would be covered in the 41 hours remaining, and who would be the apprentice(s) learning each one of them.
- The next step was to have the mentor and apprentices practice the process. With us facilitating, we had the mentor actually transfer knowledge on one of the skills with all three apprentices present. The mentor taught the skill by explaining to the apprentices the correct answers to the skill’s designated test questions (a verbal assessment tool which measures whether the apprentice is prepared to perform that skill). The apprentices were then each asked to answer the test questions to the satisfaction of the expert to show that the each apprentice had absorbed the critical knowledge he had been given. They all passed the test, showing them in real-time that the process works. This practice session was critical to make sure the client’s team understood and didn’t skip any steps of the process.
- Once we had proof that mentor and apprentices knew how to correctly apply the EKT process, the manager set up a schedule for the remaining 41 hours. Due to the time limitations, it was decided that some of the skills would be taught face-to-face and some over the phone. Then, they mapped out the 41 hours. Given the urgency, the manager took on the role of clock watcher. He only allowed the mentor and apprentices to spend 60 minutes on each line in the plan so that they would get to all 41 lines that they had prioritized. The manager said these guys would’ve spent all day on every line in the plan if they had been allowed them to. Of course, that wasn’t going to be the best or most efficient use of the available time.
- The mentor and apprentices became more adept at using their hour as they progressed. They used my firm’s knowledge transfer 5-Minute Meeting Plan as a tool to plan the agenda for every hour. That plan became foundational documentation for future reference, because it’s simple structure allowed them to fill out a written version every hour while the mentor was talking.
This EKT process not only helped the client prioritize, it also helped them to facilitate and use the expert’s remaining time to its highest value. At the end of the 30 days when the mentor left, he felt good that he had done everything humanly possible to prepare his colleagues to take over. The team had minimized their talent risk to the least possible because: 1) they were sure what they knew, and 2) they were at least sure what they had not yet learned from the expert and exactly where remaining gaps lay. They had used their time the highest advantage and got through everything they planned to get through because they had a process, a schedule, and a clear agenda. When it was over, the team felt assured that remaining risks were known. The manager said to me:
“Okay, of course, we didn’t transfer all the knowledge, but two things are true: we know what we did cover and we know we covered the most important stuff.”
SUMMARY: Emergency Knowledge Transfer (EKT) clarifies and reduces talent risk as much as humanly possible when a business-critical expert is departing. Afterward, the remaining risk within a workgroup is known. As this in-the-field story shows, using EKT allowed clear communication of the departing employee’s knowledge and vision to be broken down into manageable chunks that his apprentices could understand, talk about, ask questions about, and learn in a methodical way.