Knowledge (un)management

It’s Friday afternoon in the office. The recycled air floats with just a hint of excitement and anticipation. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the company has mandated a strict 4pm out-of-the-office deadline. Not since my early engineering consultancy days – where knock-off time was 1pm for a boozy lunch and afternoon at the pub – have I seen the entire office vacant at 4pm. The second, and the reason for the deadline, is that it’s the last day in the old office before starting work in a bright, shiny new office on Monday. There are bins strategically placed all around the office. People spend the large parts of the day sorting through documents, papers and files. “Does anyone know who belongs to this?”… “What ever happened to this project?”

There’s even an amusing post-it note discovered adorning a report with a warning for its original recipient that one of the senior managers in the organisation “has a white hot prong heading for you”.

Most, if not all of the papers head for the document destruction wheelie bins. The company has only provided one box for all personal documents, files and goodies to go to the new digs.

All my relevant documents have been binned or scanned. There were a couple of reports that I thought would definitely have  some future use. I passed them onto a document controller a month or so ago to scan them before getting rid of them. I seem to have been more organised than most, but that’s only because I wanted to make sure I could fit all the clothes and accoutrements I use for commuting into my small box. So my box is half full of business shirts, trousers and toiletries and half full of stationary stuff including a text book on financial modelling in excel (why am I still bothering to lug that thing around!).

There were also a couple of reports that seemed to have some use or value, but I had no idea where they should go, who they should go to or whether they might be useful in the future.

So while there was a document destruction bin within 10 m of everyone; while there were multiple communications about the need to limit stuff to your box; while the limited amount of storage space in the new building was emphasised… there was no instruction on how to archive information in circumstances where the relevance of information was uncertain, no information on a process.

It is true to say that there was a message on the need to retain critical information. That’s fine for critical information. It’s easy to quickly identify that the contract with the original signature of the vice president for a project that is still ongoing is important. It’s equally easy to identify that the largely illegible hand-written file note from 10 years ago on a project that was successfully completed 8 years ago can be binned without drama.

The key decisions though – the one’s that really make a difference, because they hang in the balance, like all decisions in life – happen at the margins. They happen in the large swirling grey areas in-between the black and the white.

In my experience the implications of losing this information is not necessarily critical. It’s not generally legal compliance at risk or the inability to defend or prosecute future contractual disputes. It’s the ability to use information to make slightly better decisions or to save money by not reinventing the wheels.

The problem with knowledge management in these areas is that it’s almost impossible to predict what information will have value and what will not. It’s only a small amount of information that will ever be recalled and needed.

I regret not keeping better tabs on the stories and experiences I’ve lived through, where these decisions made by others have and haven’t been useful. But I know there have been instances where the serendipitous discovery of a report prepared many years earlier has saved 10’s of thousands of dollars off the scope of large consulting projects.

So how do you combat the tendency to discard reports?

I must be old. In my first job, my company had a library and a librarian. Is it too old school to suggest that when reports and documents were held physically and tended by librarians it was much easier to discover and find things? There is little tending of information these days. It’s created and discarded in the same wasteful way that we manufacture and throw away plastic water bottles. There are often few incentives to tend the information. There are few reliable systems in which to plant them. These systems in companies can be hopelessly slow, difficult to use and as good as unsearchable. What good is planting the information if it can never be harvested? Bits and bytes sit on servers and wither without seeing daylight again. Is it a surprise then that people chose the bin?

A hypothetical (hyper-pathetically real) scenario. You find a report, it contains some interesting information, but: (a) you’re not sure what department generated it (hell it was from 5 organisational restructures ago); (b) you don’t recognise the names or who was involved (likely victims of said restructures); and, (c) you’re not certain whether it will ever be used in the future. But you need to take action with it. There is no option to just put it down. Five metres away is a document destruction bin; alternatively there is – you estimate – at least 20 minutes of effort involved in finding an owner, reviewing the document further, scanning it, potentially uploading it to the electronic system, and (if it is ever to be found again) working out how to electronically tag it appropriately. (This last part frustrates me when I think about how google retrieves information, searching within all the world’s interwebby documents in less than a second. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t understand, this technology is mostly beyond most companies in-house systems in my experience). Anyone who thinks that in the majority of cases employees don’t opt for the bin, is either not in the real world or sitting in the upper echelons of senior management.

People will make the easy decision more often than not. Even when the decision is important.

Dan Ariely is a well published psychologist and behavioural economist who has written about the strange situation of organ donation in Europe. Surely no-one would argue that the impacts of organ donation are inconsequential. These are decisions that can impact and change lives. But there is a conundrum within the data on organ donation rates in Europe. Why does Austria have donation rates over 99%, while Germany’s rate is 12%? Sweden has 86% rates, Denmark 4.25%. The Netherlands 27.5% and Belgium 98%. The thing that explains the entirety of these extreme differences is whether the check box for people to define their organ donation preferences is either an opt-in or opt-out check box. That’s all. It’s as simple as that. Give people the easier option – the one where they don’t have to tick any box – and they’ll take it. Think about that. The extra degree of difficulty is a simple flick of the wrist with a pen that was already in hand. That was all it would have taken the Germans, Danes, and Dutch to opt-in. The solution, if you’re a government or organisation who wants to encourage higher donation rates is simply to make the default to opt-in and force people to tick the box to opt-out.

Armed with this knowledge about human behaviour what should we think about a situation like the one I’m describing? It’s hard not to conclude that the environment created won’t result in the destruction of a high proportion of information that could otherwise have saved future costs, enabled better decisions, and helped provide better designs.

The better approach? This isn’t hard and I’m not claiming to have anything like the best answers. However, a start would be to provide drop-off points for documents that fall into the grey areas, right beside the document destruction bins. Yes this would mean more work for some people to eventually assess and file information, but the alternative is to throw money out the door, and to continue paying employees and consultants to reinvent wheels. Sigh…

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