Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Recession, the Knowledge Worker and Human Resources

Even in a recession, like a bad penny, the concept that staff are knowledge workers keeps returning to haunt organizations. In eight months, the search for competent workers has flipped to retaining talent and keeping organizational knowledge intact while downsizing.

And Human Resources (HR) is expected to have the ideas since they understand organizational learning and training.

Unfortunately, most organizations will learn what HR already knows. The techniques and processes that helped new hires learn quickly are also the techniques and processes that help retain organizational knowledge as people leave.

In short knowledge sharing techniques of:
  • communities of practice
  • mentoring
  • lunch and learn sessions
  • business process maps
  • expertise directories of staff
are just as useful for retaining organizational knowledge as they are for fast learning by new employees.

What won't work is exit interviews, the mind dump from departing employees.

The Experienced Manager Builds Capacity for Learning in a Down Cycle
Experienced managers recognize the opportunity in a downturn. It is an opportunity to train staff and build capability for new business opportunities once the recession recedes. It looks like you have about a year to get new organizational learning initiatives going.

Communities of Practice are Organizational Learning on Steroids
At the top of HR's list of "things to do" should be communities of practice (CoPs). All the other techniques can happen as supporting activities to CoPs. Communities of practice may be already present in your organization. But they get more robust if a corporate sponsor steps forward to validate them, even if it is only to buy lunch. What really makes them robust is if HR steps forward to provide corporate support for:
  • organizing an agenda
  • recording minutes
  • keeping a team space active.
Without corporate support, most CoPs are like volunteer organizations, flagging after the passionate volunteers burn out.

Starting communities of practice for organization benefit is not wise. Nancy Dixon, author of Common Knowledge, had some critical advice to Farm Credit Canada that is not captured in the conventional guides to CoPs. The HR professionals who started the CoPs found the CoPs were failing. Nancy Dixon pointed out that communities of practice follow a modified Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:
  • What's in It For Me?
  • What's in It For Us?
  • What's in It for the Organization?
You need to solicit "What's in It For Me?" anonymously from CoP members to get the topics that will have them show up for the next CoP meeting.

But once communities of practice fill the personal and group learning needs of staff, be prepared. They will also evolve to sharing strategic information. In Farm Credit Canada, the corporate support unit that supported CoPs evolved into a strategic business intelligence unit.

Communities of practice can be HR's role in strategic information management for the organization.

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