We Would Really Be in a Bind if You Get Hit By a Bus
Is that really the best we can do when we talk about knowledge retention and knowledge transfer strategies before unexpected events?
You have probably heard people talk about how how nobody else at your organization knows how to do certain tasks except for that one established expert in that area.
Perhaps you may even be like that person, safe in the knowledge that, all things being equal, you are the only one who knows how to do some task that is needed.
This is critical knowledge.
These situations often come in the form of only one person who really understands how the database is configured, or how a certain proprietary system works, or perhaps how to perform some healthcare procedure.
Sure, other people can learn, but if something happened to that one expert, such if they get hit by a bus, then everything goes to pot.
The Threat of Tacit Knowledge
Those of us who work in knowledge management refer to this as an area that screams of risk when an organizational or departmental analysis is done as part of a knowledge assessment. This is often connected with tacit knowledge, those areas of knowledge or skills that exist in people’s heads or experiences that are somehow not documented, taught to others before a person leaves, or readily doable by anybody else without significant business interruption.
You would really be in a bind if I get hit by a bus after I leave tonight!
This is true, the organization would suffer, but not as much as the person hit by the bus ;-)
Seriously, having only one person have critical knowledge or skills puts an organization at great risk, for tacit knowledge indeed walks out the door every evening, with the silent expectation it returns the next day.
While there are many reasons this situation exists, such as cost constraints, denial of risk, its being on the list to focus on when we have extra time or resources, or the odds simply being against somebody not returning the following day, I am particularly interested in the language we use to describe this situation.
Let’s face it, being hit by a bus is pretty extreme, yet the language we use for it is more violent than I believe it needs to be.
Why use violence when we can just as easily use something more optimistic? We make our meaning through the language we use, so use language akin to the meaning we want.
Winning the Lottery vs. Hit by a Bus
Rather than saying we will all struggle if you leave and get hit by a bus tonight, I prefer to say that we will all struggle if you win the lottery tonight.
Let’s face it, the output is the same — either way, that person is not coming into the office tomorrow. The rest of us remaining will still struggle.
The bus notion has you dead or in the hospital. Not a nice reality to consider!
However, winning the lottery will surely not have you coming into the office tomorrow, as you will be on a flight to some Shangri-La. What better reason is there to not head back to the office because you are celebrating with your friends and family?!
For the organization, the instant loss of tacit knowledge is the same. However, the difference in how we speak about what led there is significant.
So, the next time you want to highlight how your knowledge and skills are critical to your organization or workplace, speak about how they may all appreciate you when you are gone if you win the lottery tonight. Nobody will expect you to come in again, but for such good reasons!
At least you will have some positive karma in your language, and while that will not address the challenge of tacit knowledge not being backed up before it was needed, positive energy just may be contagious.
What do you think about the notion of replacing not coming back to the office because you are hit by a bus with winning the lottery instead?
Jeffrey Keefer, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and coach who helps people take informed action for success through adult learning strategies. When not writing on Medium, he teaches, works with institutional and qualitative research, edits Wikipedia, writes poetry, and plays with his pugs. If you like his writings and perspective, please keep in touch.