You are too valuable! Work will stop if you ever get hit by a bus!

Jeffrey Keefer

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Are You the Only Expert of a Certain Kind at Your Firm?

Is the maxim, "Don't get hit by a bus!" really the best we can come up with when we talk about knowledge retention and knowledge transfer strategies we must get into place before unexpected events?

You have probably heard people talk about how nobody else at your organization knows how to do certain specific tasks except for that one established expert in that area.

Perhaps you may even be that person, safe in the knowledge that all things being equal, you are the only one who knows how to do some task that is needed. Great for job security, though not great when you want to take time off and unplug!

This is the sort of critical knowledge that every company and organization holds, and as they focus on special knowledge or experience sets, they are also prime areas of risk.

These situations often come in the form of only one person who understands how the database is configured, how a particular proprietary system works, or how to perform some healthcare procedure. It can even be the only one who knows how to fix, train, sell, or lead some dedicated aspect of the workplace.

Sure, other people can learn, but if something happens to that one expert, such as they quit without notice or win the lottery and decide to leave immediately, then there could be severe implications for the organization.

This is often referred to in a humorous manner, such as, "You know, you know everything about this. You better not get hit by a bus, or we are all in trouble!"

The Threat of Tacit Knowledge

Those of us who work in knowledge management refer to this as an area that screams organizational risk when an organizational or departmental analysis is done as part of a knowledge assessment. What does this mean? When we ask who does what in this or that process, and what are the backup plans if somebody suddenly is not there?

This is often connected with tacit knowledge, those areas of knowledge or skills that exist in people's heads or experiences that are somehow not documented, not consistently transitioned or taught to others before a person leaves, or readily doable by anybody else without significant business interruption.

You would really be in a bind if I get hit by a bus after I leave tonight! Namely, if I leave, my knowledge and experiences go with me, and if nobody else can fill the gap, then this has significant workplace implications.

The hitting by the bus is a metaphor, of course, and it certainly speaks to suffering all around!

Seriously, having only one person have all the organizational critical knowledge or skills puts any organization at significant risk, for tacit knowledge indeed walks out the door every evening, with the silent expectation or at least hope it returns the next day.

While there are many reasons this situation exists, such as cost constraints, denial of risk, its being on the list to focus on when we have extra time or resources, or the odds simply being against somebody not returning the following day, I am particularly interested in the language we use to describe this situation.

Let's face it, being hit by a bus is pretty extreme, yet the language we use for it is more violent than I believe it needs to be.

Why use violence when we can just as easily use something more optimistic? We make our meaning through the language we use, so use language akin to the meaning we want.

Winning the Lottery vs. Hit by a Bus

Rather than saying we will all struggle if you leave and get hit by a bus tonight, I prefer to say that we will all struggle if you win the lottery tonight.

Let's face it; the output is the same — either way, that person is not coming into the office tomorrow. The rest of us remaining will still struggle, as nobody will remain who knows how to do a certain part of mission-critical work.

The bus notion has you dead or in the hospital. Not a nice reality to consider!

However, winning the lottery will surely not have you coming into the office tomorrow, as you will be on a flight to some Shangri-La. What better reason is there to not head back to the office because you are celebrating with your friends and family?!

Instant Loss of Tacit Knowledge

For the organization, the instant loss of tacit knowledge is the same. Some aspects of the business will immediately cease. However, the difference in how we speak about what led us there is significant.

So, the next time you want to highlight how your knowledge and skills are critical to your organization or workplace, speak about how they may all appreciate you when you are gone if you win the lottery tonight. Nobody will expect you to come in again, but for such good reasons!

At least you will have some positive karma in your language, and while that will not address the challenge of tacit knowledge not being backed up before it was needed, positive energy just may be contagious.

From a project management perspective, we refer to this entire area as risk management or risk mitigation. While having one person be the only person who knows some form of business-critical work may help with job security, it is actually highly problematic to have all that knowledge centralized within only one person. If that person is sick or tries to go on vacation, they are always on call as nobody else can pitch in and do that work. Of course, if that person did win the lottery, then somehow the organization would need to continue, though it would happen in a very handicapped manner as the expertise would be so absent.

Take-Away?

What to do about this? If you are the one with all the tacit knowledge, unwritten down knowledge and skills in your head, then you are valuable. If you lead the organization where this happens and where there is not some form of backup to ensure somebody else can pick up if that person leaves, then what will you do to fix this issue?

It will happen that people leave, and the last thing we all want is for nobody else to be able to continue the work because we did not plan for organizational sustainability! Succession planning is not simply for finding new leaders; it is also for preparing for winning the lottery!

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY
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