Wednesday, 14 October 2015

What does a new broom know?

You may be familiar with the thought experiment sometimes called the 'is it the same broom?'. In a the 12th episode of the last series of Dr Who, Peter Capaldi asks "you take a broom, you replace the handle, and then later you replace the brush. And you do that, over and over again. Is it still the same broom?".It's actually a modern variant of the ancient 'Ship of Theseus' question, in which the philosopher Plutarch asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing every one of its wooden parts remained the same ship.

This came to mind when a client recently told me that when analysing staff turnover in a particular department of 24 people, it was discovered that not one individual had been in post 5 years ago. If every member of staff was replaced over that period, is it the same department? Well of course it is; but it raises the question of continuity, and in particular what that department knows. I thought it fascinating that not only did they not know what they had forgotten, but had no idea that they might have had forgotten anything (credit: Donald Rumsfeld). Another very large organisation I met with this week told me they were now experiencing 50% turnover per year. That's an entirely new ship, or broom, every 2 years. They had vastly ramped-up their graduate recruitment program to compensate.
The know-how and organisational learning implications of this are enormous:
  1. Knowledge retention initiatives for experienced individuals or those with unique knowledge simply cannot wait until someone leaves. A proactive risk-management and prioritisation process is vital to ensure scarce support resources are used effectively.
  2. On-boarding has to be effective and well-supported. 
  3. Knowledge must be stewarded by professional or subject-matter networks, not just vested in an individual.  Building up this 'latent' or network knowledge capability is the most sustainable risk-mitigation for such a scenario, but rarely a priority under such pressure.
Centuries after Plutarch, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the ship's original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship. I leave you to ponder what this might mean for an organisation's knowledge distributed to the four winds.