One of the realities of managing people or projects today is that you no longer work with the same group of people for extended periods of time. Contractors come and go, people are moved around or leave, taking their knowledge and experience with them. Frequently we are forced to on-board new team members and take the time to train them until they are up to speed. This can be frustrating and expensive.
One problem is how we train new team members. The traditional approach of handing them a thick manual, pairing them with an old hand to shadow and observe or sending them to "boot camp" for a week or two doesn't make sense on several levels. What does make sense is to take the tasks necessary for job or project success, make it available in small chunks and teach people how to access that knowledge on demand.
One of the leading proponents of this approach is Todd Hudson of The Maverick Institute, a firm that helps companies accelerate knowledge transfer by applying LEAN methods to training and learning. These include things like "just in time" learning, small doses to avoid time off the job, and using new technology to speed up the process. I spoke to him on a recent Cranky Middle Manager podcast. Here's a bit of what we discussed.
Why is it so critical for managers of remote teams to capture knowledge?
Employee and contractor turnover in companies and on project teams is only going to speed up. There's going to be less and less time for people to learn what they need to know around the water cooler and by trial and error. Remote teams make this worse; there's no water cooler (unless you set one up virtually) and, even then, issues like culture, language and huge time zone differences can come into play if you have team members overseas.
Managers need to continually capture critical knowledge and make it easily available to the next round of contractors and team members at the moment of need. Having workers document what they do and archive it in a form that's accessible should be an expectation of the job.
Are there specific tools and techniques that work best in a distributed work environment?
Yes. We use a 'knowledge silo matrix' to help clients assess what people know and monitor progress on topics they need to learn. We also help them create 'skill development plans' that list all the skills, tasks and activities new team members need to learn along with resources to help them learn and test questions they should be able to answer if they really understand the topic. The key is to be able to assess, transfer knowledge and monitor progress quickly and easily.
What are the 3-4 key things managers need to take into account when implementing "lean learning"?
1. See knowledge transfer as a structured, repeatable process that new team members can largely do on their own. New team members want to succeed; you simply have to give them a roadmap of how to do it.
2. Clearly articulate the skills, tasks and activities you want new team members to be able to do. For example, create a SQL query, conduct phone survey, calculate FOB pricing. This reduces confusion on everyone's part and makes clear what needs to be learned.
3. People don't need to learn everything at once. Stop 'firehosing' new team members! Sequence topics logically and give people enough time to learn them.
4. Provide learning resources for each skill, task or activity. Resources could be people, documents, online courses, videos or screencasts. Think outside your company. Use readily accessible, free or inexpensive resources like YouTube or Linda.com.
What are you doing to capture what your team knows and make it available to everyone when they need it?
To hear more of this interview, check out The Cranky Middle Manager Podcast #314