Demographics and technology, two of our biggest challenges, contribute to a third – organizational Alzheimer’s. Seeking solutions, François Guimont, then president of the Canada Food Inspection Agency, chaired an action-research roundtable on organizational memory. “Preserving knowledge is a core responsibility of every manager…new technologies allow us to generate and store vast amounts of information, but also to misplace vast amounts of information. We, as an institution, are forgetting important lessons from the past,” the report begins.
Sponsored by the Canada School of Public Service, it was described by school president Ruth Dantzer as “tackling a challenge that deeply affects all public servants…crucial knowledge and experience are being lost due to retirements, organizational change, and shifts in personnel…the Guide addresses the challenge by offering strategic insights and useful advice about smart practices that combat organizational memory loss.”
Editor-in-Chief Dr. Paul Crookall spoke with Guimont, who is now deputy minister at Public Works Government Services Canada, about the report.
It seems we are rediscovering some of the old management lessons, including the need to talk with each other.
Executives are busier than ever. Jobs are more complex, time demands are greater than in the past. Managers have less time to spend on in-depth discussions. Transactions often drive our agendas. What we have learned in our study is the need to take a step back, and engage our human resource potential more fully. That’s where a large segment of knowledge resides – in people. The guide gives a number of techniques that are meant to optimize the sharing and retention of knowledge, so critical in our daily decision-making responsibilities.
The manual recommends each agency/department develop an inventory of smart practices. It lists 13, such as knowledge centers and network-based solutions, as described in Figure 1. How would one go about setting this up?
The reader will note the guide is not meant to be prescriptive. There is no one size fits all. Therefore, the various techniques we explored should be considered against a clear understanding of organizational demands and its culture. In some way, the diagnostic tool proposed should allow an organization to properly scope its needs. This initial analysis is critical, as it will provide management with a take on its strengths and weaknesses. As with any initiative requiring people’s involvement, gauging which tool will have a better chance of success is important. As an example, exit interviews are fairly common practice. It is an effective tool that can rely on very basic instruments, such as a questionnaire, leading to a structured discussion where the individual’s networks, archiving of information, method of work, and skills are reviewed and documented. It is a low technology approach that is modular in nature and easily implemented. On the other hand, learning events are more involved. Since this tool does not rely solely on two individuals, it requires some planning and thoughtful execution to generate the right outcomes. Organizations will have to define the right forums, establish proper sponsorship and coordination. Solid participation is critical. For these events to be successful, they must be fun and can’t be perceived as an added workload. Beyond transmitting knowledge and experiences, these events have the side benefit of developing teaching and communication skills.
Dan Tapscott spoke recently to the public service IT community about wikis, shared knowledge centres that anyone can have input to. One of the tools in the guide is communities of practice. Do you see departments setting up an internal “wikipedia” to help build those communities?
I found Tapscott’s presentation interesting and his thesis well documented. More and more, knowledge is a shared commodity, and solutions to issues can benefit from wide-ranging inputs. We explored some of that thinking in the sections dealing with both communities of practice and network-based solutions. At the core of these tools are people who are involved because of professional interest and the value they put on interacting with peers who share common interests. The application of these tools to preserve organizational memory can be powerful. While these approaches rely on voluntary contribution, and require a good level of autonomy to be productive, they still need a certain level of structure. As noted in the guide, coordination, sponsorship, various forums for discussion, relationship and branding are key ingredients for these to grow and be productive.
How did you manage the project?
I worked closely with the Canada School of Public Service in assembling a group of individuals with diverse backgrounds. We selected participants from the private sector, academia and colleagues from the public sector. The first couple of sessions were open ended, where a lot of ideas were put on the table and debated. The dialogue was rich, with people drawing from their own work experience. We collectively felt we needed to produce a document that would strike the right balance between the theoretical aspects of the question while being practical in nature. Working sessions were staggered so that both Peter Stoyko and Yulin Fang of the Secretariat could carry out research on the topics we had discussed and put pen to paper in shaping a text that would capture our ideas. This was an enjoyable and stimulating experience, a nice break from the day-to-day responsibilities of managing an organization.
Beyond organizational memory, what are your challenges at PWGSC?
PWGSC is a fascinating department – big and diverse. People work hard and they are proud. The department has a long history and relies on a professional cadre that has a great depth of knowledge and know-how. Like the rest of the federal public service, we too face the challenge of renewal. One of the key priorities I have set with the management team is to get our fundamentals right. “Fundamentals” in not only how we procure goods or provide office space, but also in running and renewing our back office systems. A key focus of our fundamentals exercise will be the renewal of our workforce…while not losing our organizational memory. The guide, Lost and Found, will help us bridge that gap.