Organizational knowledge and temporary staff

Gibbs ponders the trend to using more temps and sees a serious risk to the creation and retention of organizational knowledge

Your organization does stuff. You buy things, you make things from the things you bought, you write things, you send out invoices for things you've sold ... there are thousands of things you do and these procedures are what drives your business.

In most organizations there will usually be a lot of informal procedures that are passed on from one person to another, along with far fewer formalized procedures enshrined in computer software, procedures such as accounting, customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning. These documented and undocumented procedures are otherwise called "organizational knowledge."

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There are serious problems with having too many informal procedures and one of the biggest is when employees leave the organization, taking with them the understanding of those undocumented procedures and, as a consequence, making the organization a little "dumber."

Even if employees train their replacements, some portion of their knowledge -- usually the critical portions acquired over months or years of work -- will be lost. This lost knowledge is particularly important in "edge cases," where exceptions and novel situations arise where special responses and actions are required.

The other part of organizational knowledge that gets lost unless it is actively and intelligently captured and then strategically filed is history: The "Why/How/When did we do that?" of the organization.

My friend Ted who runs IT for the Ventura Unified School District just told me a good example of the consequences of a lack of organizational memory: One of the cable companies they had a deal with over co-use of optical fiber in the district recently made claims of ownership of said fiber.

Ted remembered the deal but, because no one had ever collected all of the original paperwork generated by multiple government agencies, he had to undertake the huge task of sifting through archives to reconstruct the governance history to prove the cable company wrong. Had Ted not remembered the original deal, the cable company would have taken possession of a valuable resource it didn't have a right to and the school district would have lost a lot of money. Ted retires at the end of this year.

Now, in this crappy economic climate many full-time positions are being replaced by temporary workers or "temps." The reason for this change is that temps are cheaper -- they are usually paid hourly wages without benefits -- and easier to manage (they can be dismissed at any time).

While this trend has become well-established in areas such as warehousing and the building industry (see the disturbing article "Everyone Only Wants Temps" published in Mother Jones), it's also become commonplace at higher corporate levels, and in IT temporary staff can include programmers, analysts, project managers and even CIOs.

While temporary staff have their advantages when real short-term needs exist, the tendency to keep temps on for longer periods (which is being seen in both blue- and white-collar environments) as a hedge against changing economic realities will have a long-term side effect: The organizational knowledge that should accumulate and guide future actions will, at best, be severely diminished. At worst, it will be more-or-less lost completely.

If you're in a senior position in an organization, think carefully before you go down the temp route because it will ultimately impact your organizations' knowledge and the future consequences could be very costly. You need Teds, not temps.

Gibbs is permanently in Ventura, Calif. Tell your status and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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