In situations like this, knowledge transfer takes on a new twist. You’re not only transferring knowledge so that somebody can go away, you’re also preparing for their return. The Skill Development Plan (SDP) is a tool that sets up your temporary backup to cover your work while you’re away. Then, that exact same tool can be used to reintroduce somebody to the workforce, to let him or her know what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in their absence. It allows them to slide back in and go back to work quickly and without too much anxiety.

One of our clients, a global foundation, reached out to us with just this situation. Jane, who is a key executive, is preparing for maternity leave and is expected to go out on leave for up to a year, which is obviously a very big difference than 90 days. She has three people who are going to be covering the responsibilities in her silos. One of them is a contractor and two of them are employees. The client is very concerned because Jane’s role is critical to the foundation’s success. She has the soft skills that are really important for the mission of the organization, and for the foundation’s brand.

In most transitions, the expert would transfer knowledge and then go away, or transfer knowledge to her coworker so she can move on to a new job role within the company. To transfer knowledge, go away, and then come back? That takes more a little more finesse and clarification for Jane before she leaves.

For example, Jane wants to clarify before she goes whether she’s handing off “purple”, (the responsibility for setting the standard in her areas of expertise). Jane sets the standard for five different silos. She’s purple in at least five silos. Before she goes, Jane needs to clarify:

  • Will that change while she’s gone? Will she set the standard before she goes, and expect that standard to be pretty static while she’s gone? When she gets back, will she pick up her role as the one who sets the standard for those silos going forward? If they know for sure that she’s going to do that, then that is a valuable conversation to have with her team. “Look, just maintain the status quo.”
  • If she takes the transition as an opportunity to hand over purple and green, not just setting the standard, but doing the work, she could take that opportunity right now. If she knows in the next year she would have transitioned some of this work to somebody else anyway, then now would be a really good time to do that so that these people know that they’re taking on the work and the setting of the standard going forward. That frees them up to not feel like they’re in a box while she’s gone.
  • In some instances, there are new silos that are coming online, new areas of work that they’re going to take on. Jane might have been involved in setting that standard had she been here, but she’s not going to be here. What input can she give before she goes? This situation requires them to think a whole year out.

If we look at the foundation’s strategy we can build the Knowledge Silo Matrix (KSM) thinking about what’s going to happen during the next year and plan for it. What new work is going to come into play that Jane might have participated in? This would include work that they weren’t planning to think about until, let’s say, next January. She’ll still be out in January. They can have some of those conversations now. She can weigh in before she leaves. She can participate in setting the standard before she goes. Maybe she documents some of her ideas so that she can influence what gets done while she’s gone well in advance of anybody else thinking about it.

Then, another issue is that Jane is a manager. She has a woman named Abbie who works for her. Abbie’s only been on the job six months. It would be a shame if Abbie’s personal development was not continued or even accelerated during this next year. She wants to keep growing and developing her position. Another big question while Jane is gone is what can Abbie be learning how to do and from whom should she learn it?

There needs to be people who are dealing with this while Jane’s away. As the manager, she’s got her own staff. She has to set up knowledge transfer plans for them so that they’re learning while she’s gone, not waiting for her to get back, and very importantly, they’re learning from the right person, not just picking things up but picking things up from the right person. A little bit of structure around that would help. Making sure that when she gets back, things are going to be more or less where she left them or where she planned for them to be. The knowledge transfer for Abbie needs to keep happening thoughtfully while Jane’s gone.

The purpose of our next meeting with this client is to clarify not only who is going be transferring knowledge to whom, but also who is going be the point person for all the work. This is a talent risk management issue using our tools for more than knowledge transfer. Making sure that every silo has a temporary purple, if not a permanent one, or at least an owner, somebody who would call themselves responsible. They’re mitigating the risk at several levels. They’re deconstructing the work of the person who is going out on leave. They’re making sure that there are owners for all that work. They’re making sure there are backups who are trained to do all that work. Then, they’re setting up for Jane’s return. Thinking a whole year out and saying, “What are we going to be doing while you’re gone?”

As her leave is ending, we can meet again and say, “Jane’s going to be returning in 30 days. Let’s get organized for that.” Then, on her first week back, we’ll be able to pull up the matrix, pull up the Skill Development Plan, and it’ll be part of her reorientation or re-onboarding to see the status of all this knowledge and work in addition to seeing the outputs, the documents they’ve written, the presentations they’ve created, et cetera.

This is a shape of things to come as companies compete for top talent. The family leave issue is becoming a bigger deal as more and more companies now have policies that allow for men and women to take extended time off to care for an ailing parent, adopt a child, etc.

Summary: Having a plan in place to not only transfer knowledge while an employee is gone, but also to prepare for their return will insure that the risk normally associated with a key employee’s absence is mitigated. When the employee returns, he or she will be able to get back to work quickly and with less stress and less downtime.