The “hit by a bus” scenario

How is your institutional memory stored? If you’re like many companies, it’s in the heads of everyone who works there. This leads to that big, scary scenario: What if someone is hit by a bus tomorrow?

What if someone leaves the company? What if they’re promoted, transferred, fired, become ill, take maternity leave, or are otherwise removed from the workgroup? What if they’re actually hit by a bus?

8333852211_4da09c07cfWhen people leave the team suddenly and unexpectedly, they usually take a lot of important information with them. Unless this information is stored somewhere besides their noggins, it could be lost permanently, meaning a lot of down time and lost productivity lies ahead. How can this situation be averted?

First, it’s key to make a list of the kinds of information that needs to be passed on as employees come and go. This may include:

  • passwords
  • contact information for important people
  • important tasks that must be performed at certain times, whether daily (e.g., backups), weekly or monthly (metrics reporting), or annually (license renewals, insurance policy renewals, etc.)
  • internal policies, procedures and timelines (step-by-step instructions for performing certain tasks or projects)
  • government rules and regulations that affect company operations
  • other vital data such as federal tax ID numbers, policy numbers or account numbers

How many of you have this kind of information written on sticky notes and pasted onto the bottom of your computer monitor or stuck to a corkboard with a push pin? If you do, you’re a prime candidate for hit-by-a-bus syndrome.

Important information needs to be organized and stored. Most important information can be created in Word documents or spreadsheets and stored on the company’s server (not on an individual’s PC). It should be backed up regularly along with the company’s other data. As the information changes, specific staffers need to be assigned to update the information promptly so that the Intranet password from 2007 is not still part of the company’s institutional memory. In addition, everyone in the company should learn where to access this data, perhaps as part of their orientation or as a piece of regular employee training sessions. (“It’s on the notepad under Mary’s coffee cup” is not an acceptable answer.)

Creating systems to store and pass on institutional memory can be difficult. What’s even harder is maintaining them. Managers should make it a priority to check in on the process from time to time to ensure that it’s functioning. Otherwise, everyone may suffer when a key employee leaves and takes years of “how the office works” with them.

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