So, I’m sitting in a conference room full of techie types because I needed some CPE hours and a have minor revelation.  In fairness nowhere near an epiphany but somewhere above an interesting observation – Corporate America really is getting old.

The conference was an all day affair for systems auditors, and the topic was a deep dive in configuring and auditing Microsoft SharePoint.  Now, I recognize that doesn’t sound anything like a quick weekend in Vegas but given continuing education is a necessary evil my philosophy is you’ve got to get your jollies where you can.  The meeting had a limit of 50 attendees so I wasn’t that surprised the audience comprised 45 guys and only 5 women.  However, what did catch my attention was that the average age of the entire group was well into the 50’s.

Sometimes it’s just serendipity that something catches your attention while you’re looking longingly at the cookies next to the coffee on the table at the back of the room.  The whole point of enterprise collaboration software such as SharePoint is to aggregate the entirety of an organization’s intellectual property, but the security people (and of course, the lawyers) only want to share the minimum necessary according to some policy or other.  What I think is the nugget of insight is – we’re all missing the big picture.

The first half of the “ah hah” is that corporations, government and organizations in general are reasonably good at documenting policies, procedures and regulation, after regulation, after regulation ad nauseam.  As employees moving up the ranks of our organizations, we’ve been trained, encouraged and rewarded to go straight to the answer by looking up whatever policy or rule applies in any particular situation.  What we’ve done is refine and refine how our companies work so that everything is as efficient as possible – and there is a lot to be said for efficiency.  What we haven’t done anywhere near as well is document why set things up the way they are.

The second part of the big picture is that all the downsizing and outsourcing since the late 80’s has been quietly playing itself out in the demographics of corporate America.  If in each wave of layoffs or outsourcings, the objective is to retain the most efficient workers, then you’ll end up keeping those that either already know the policies and procedure by heart or are considered the most likely to quickly research and identify the policy that should be utilized.  Under this logic, each cycle of downsizing has the greatest impact on the most junior cohort of employees.  In other words, if every 10 years or so your company has a major purge of the least experienced and removes large parts of the youngest cohort (I had to throw some statistical term in here if we’re going to call this educational), then you’re consistently skewing your workforce to be older and older.

And guess what?  That’s what we’ve done.

Now here’s the two plus two part – what happens when the “why” isn’t well documented AND everyone’s getting old and wants to retire?  We’ve done a pretty good job of capturing the “what” but the real money, the really big value, is in the “WHY.”

We’ve all heard the term institutional memory (OK, second big term and we’re covered), but it doesn’t really mean anything until we find we’re repeating mistakes of the past – mistakes that could have been easily eliminated with a little knowledge sharing.  Let’s use NASA as an example.  Why were the US and Russia able to get to space in the first place just a generation after WW11 – because Wernher von Braun and his colleagues left Germany with an enormous amount of hard-won, trial-and-error knowledge in their heads.  It turns out that the claim “our German scientists are better than their German scientist” wasn’t just a good line.  When NASA was first created, our team did a great job of documenting manuals and procedures and built damn fine rockets – no Saturn V ever did anything except perform flawlessly.  Then, just after the glorious Apollo missions our German scientists got old and retired.  NASA’s manuals remained and it rolled on well enough for a while. As more and more of the old guard left, the WHY’s of how things were done were lost.  I am a space nut but let’s be honest, NASA is not what it used to be – can you imagine the original team mistaking feet for meters and driving a lander into the ground?

One of the project teams I’ve been working with recently has been busy consolidating and streamlining operational procedures across brands for an international distributor with multiple divisions.  The result is a much simpler set of standards and processes that reaches across all the business units, but a side observation is that the very few (really only one person) inside the company has a true understanding of the big picture – and that big picture, is entirely in her head.

Let me say it again – the really, really big money is in all the work it took to work out the “WHY.”  Can you imagine the effort to replicate the basic knowledge German rocket scientists learned during with the V2 and on a more human scale even what my client at the distribution company has in her head?

Yes, the stock market is way down and very few people have properly funded their nest eggs, but hoping all your graying employees will stick around forever is likely not one of the great strategic plans.

Your to-do for the day:  look around the office or your group/division and count the under-30’s because that’s way easier than counting the baby boomers.  If the kids count is less than 20%, you’d better start holding coffee meetings to share the why’s behind the reasons things are done the way they are done.  Because if you’re planning to retire, those dividends you’re counting on may not be there otherwise.

The proper answer is to write down the theory behind why processes and policies have been set up and then share, share and share some more.  I’ve now started making an effort to make sure I document the logic in how things have been set up and implanting a formal knowledge management plan.

How much you collaborate now may be the key to your retirement.  I should share the details of our plan but am feeling a little old and tired…. I’m sure you can work it out on your own.

PS – Just kidding, details of a simple best practice knowledge management strategy will be in the next installment.  This is my contribution to why we need to write things down.

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