Posted by: davidhayden | May 28, 2010

Vanishing Technology: How to prevent your company from being destroyed when talented people leave


To the naked eye Yellowstone National Park is a thing of beauty and a remarkable balance of opposing forces.  This was not always the case nor will it always be.   Yellowstone is a park smack dab on top of one of the world’s few supervolcanoes.

640,000 years ago Yellowstone was in a violent rage. As the pressure built up from below, the earth’s crust could no longer contain pressure and the resultant eruption ejected over 1,000 cubic km / 240 cubic miles of matter in the atmosphere.  In a very short time, what was then Yellowstone, vanished into thin air, never to return to the area again.

It was definitely a game changer.

Many businesses are much like Yellowstone.  A delicate balance of talented people trapped by the pressures of loyalty and economics.  Without warning, the balance of power can shift and the most talented people will escape the pressure, blow out the door, never to be seen again.  Vanishing with them will be all the knowledge and lessons they have learned.

So what is vanishing technology?

Vanishing technology is all the important job specific knowledge your employees have mastered along the way that walks out the door when they leave the company.   It is not the stuff in your policy manuals and standard procedures.   This technology is all the non-standard tricks and techniques your employees learned or developed to become really good at what they do.  It is the things they do that make you sit back and marvel at how much they get done compared to the others in their group.

It is Vanishing Technology because it just walked out the door leaving you wondering “how did I get in this position?”

So how did you get in this position?

It’s no mystery why managers and supervisors find themselves scrambling to recover from the ravages of vanishing technology.  Call it budget, resources, time or whatever you want, but it all comes down to short sightedness.

Companies maintain their equipment, their vehicles, computers, etc. because they realize how much they depend on these assets to get the job done.  It is so important, it is a line item on the budget.  How many budgets do you suppose have a line item called “knowledge retention?”

At one place I worked a good friend and colleague had this theory that management views people like spark plugs, readily available and completely interchangeable.  Swap them, exchange them,  replace them with a new ones all without affecting performance.

You and I know our employees are not spark plugs.  Joe can’t do Lisa’s job, Lisa can’t replace Fred or Lydia and so on.  And unlike spark plugs, people can be impulsive and simply leave of their own accord.  And when people leave, they take their knowledge with them.   The good news is that you  can prevent most of the technology from walking out the door with them.

3 ways to prevent vanishing technology

Not only can you prevent vanishing technology, you must prevent it for the good of the company.  It is every bit as important as maintaining the delivery van, capital equipment or photo copier.  Here are the three most common ways you can preserve your technology.

  • Make process documentation a key part of a key employees job.

    To insure the job gets done, give them the task and a regular time to do it. This could be an hour a day, a couple hours per week or whatever.  This time should be scheduled and the employee is not to be disturbed while documenting.

    Pros

    • No one knows the job like the person doing it
    • Less expensive than hiring a contractor or assigning permanent staff

    Cons

    • Employee may be great at the job task but lousy at writing
    • As a subject matter expert, the employee may be so close to the process they take for granted the little things that make a difference
    • Inexperienced writers typically have a very hard time enduring the editing process
    • Some employees are very defensive and hate the thought of being replaceable and will keep key aspects of the process secret
  • Assign or hire permanent employees to document the tasks of others.

    Pros

    • Employees will be focused on documentation and not distracted by having to do production work
    • Permanent employees will cost less in the short run than contract documentation experts

    Cons

    • Permanent employees tend to be less efficient because it is just a job
    • Permanent employees, if they are not up to the task, will need to be redeployed or let go, either of which can be costly and / time consuming
    • Personality problems typically have less accountability than contractors who are paid based on documentation delivered
  • Hire a documentation specialist

    Pros

    • Documentation Experts have proven systems for creating usable documentation
    • Documentation Experts know how to interview and observe subject matter experts so they capture every nuance
    • Documentation Experts are experts at documentation and not the subject matter so they take nothing for granted
    • Good Documentation Experts will offer money back guarantees, provide milestone reviews, get the job done and be off the payroll.

    Cons

    • Upfront costs may seem much higher
    • Push back from employees complaining that “this guy doesn’t know anything about this task, I have to explain everything.”
    • Some Documentation Experts are experts in title only.  You must choose yours carefully.


Preventing vanishing technology is not for everybody.  If your company is struggling to stay alive, you may not have the budget for it.

On the other hand, if you are struggling to keep the doors open, you are likely suffering from vanishing technology because of forced or natural attrition and your company’s survival may well depend on capturing knowledge before it walks out the door.

Some day, probably not in our life times, Yellowstone will blow her top and in that instant, all we know of Yellowstone and the surrounding area will vanish.

The good news is, the Internet, photographs, books and magazines have captured the essence of what Yellowstone is today and while the park may disappear, its history and all we know about the park will not.

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