How to plug a brain drain

Many an IT pro has found himself or herself in this unenviable situation: a colleague leaves the company with significant intellectual property locked away in his head. Perhaps it’s the maintenance aspects of a crucial yet finicky application, or the location of some important files hidden in the network. Whatever the case, it’s frustrating to replace or recreate the lost information.

Preventing such situations is a key aspect of knowledge management, and it’s a topic that tech workers have plenty to say about. ComputerWorld Canada canvassed a few IT professionals for their thoughts on how best to ensure vital IP doesn’t disappear.

Greg Hutchinson is the principal application architect at Farm Credit Canada (FCC), a Regina-based federal government operation that loans money to agricultural businesses. He said the organization uses side-by-side software development to aid knowledge management.

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“One of the methodologies we use is…extreme programming,” Hutchinson said. “In a nutshell, there are always two people working on one piece of code. You’re no longer dependent on one person.

“It’s not the same two people either,” he explained. “Today you and I might work together; tomorrow another two would work together.” Thus, if one particularly resourceful developer leaves the organization, he doesn’t take vital information out the door as well. “Your dependence on one person being the expert becomes less and less.”

Although the dual-person app dev plan might seem a waste of resources — FCC uses two people to do the job of one — Hutchinson said extreme programming offers rewards beyond knowledge management.

“We haven’t done any hard measurements on it, but we feel the quality of code we get from the pairs, the time they deliver, plus the learning curve that we reduce by having two people working together is at least a break-even with having everybody work by themselves.”

According to Randy Busch, a vice-president of Tira Wireless Inc., a mobile-app porting software provider in Toronto, sometimes companies need to formalize knowledge management to make sure it stays top-of-mind for all employees.

“We actually have a knowledge manager,” he said. The knowledge manager collects information saved to Tira’s knowledgebase, which the firm’s application developers and clients can access online. The knowledge manager then “filters” the data, Busch said. This person sifts the info to ensure the same issue doesn’t appear more than once.

The developers get the info from the knowledge manager and apply the data to Tira’s product, the Jump Developer Suite, which helps software makers port their wares across multiple handsets.

“I and one of the other people at the company come from a knowledgebase company, so we really understand how knowledge can be valuable, and how to use it,” Busch said, recalling his history at a CRM firm called Servicesoft.

Tim Bray is Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Vancouver-based director of Web technologies, and founder of Open Text Corp., a knowledge-management software provider. He said successful knowledge management is a matter of using the tools at hand.

“I personally favour low-rent, low-tech approaches. For example, at Sun we’re a very e-mail driven company.” He’s heard that Sun’s e-mail servers handle a million messages a day across its 30,000 employees. “We have a really good e-mail search engine across our message archives. That’s an incredibly effective knowledge management tool.

“The other thing becoming relevant in the KM space is the advent of blogs and syndication feeds to them, which immensely increase your ability to become informed in real time about aspects of work that you care about,” Bray continued. “If that’s not knowledge management, I don’t know what is.”

Bray said full-fledged knowledge management software could also help, but businesses have to commit to purchasing and running it, which can be arduous.

“The full-scale knowledge management vendors’ products tend to be expensive, complex and a lot of work to deploy,” he said, excluding Open Text. “There’s lots of room for low-rent, lightweight, interim measures that might just hit a good point in the KM goal.”

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