We just lost a key employee and everything was in her head

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A critical event such as losing a key employee can be a huge setback for an ill-prepared organization.  There are risks of loss of time, loss of money, and/or loss of goodwill over something that could have been mitigated through some planning.  To list off a few stories that we have witnessed first hand:

  • Frustrated customers feel alienated because their go-to point of contact has disappeared and both the customer and the organization have to re-learn how to work together; or worse, customers are loyal to the key employee and move their business elsewhere.
  • Expending resources to piece together everything that the key employee was working on and pick up where things were left hanging.  Some things may fall through the cracks and opportunities are lost forever.
  • Valuable experience and learnings of the role and job functions have vaporized.  The organization has to start from scratch in training a replacement and absorb the costs of ramping up the new person.

Something as simple as a piece of paper that lists the key employee’s job roles and responsibilities (WHAT) can save future headaches.  For organizations committed to having a sound plan, a more sophisticated solution could entail living documentation and diagrams detailing her specific tasks/functions and HOW those functions are performed.  Those documents are then reviewed regularly for accuracy and updated to reflect new responsibilities, processes, or metrics.

Taking it one step further, what would happen if the entire management team disappears, through an acquisition, for example?  Instead of losing specific knowledge contained in one key employee’s head, entire chunks of an organization’s knowledge are lost.  The risks are more severe when an entire department is replaced, but the same principles apply when documenting a department’s roles and responsibilities; it is not too far of a stretch from capturing a key employee’s roles and responsibilities.

No employee or role (or management team) is simply plug-and-play, but having some kind of records to rely on when in a crisis are better than having no records at all.  What kind of techniques and methods have you found to be successful at capturing your organization’s knowledge?