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Human Resources

Human Resources: Laying the Groundwork for Successors' Success

Don't let outgoing executives' knowledge leave campus when they do.
University Business, May 2006

Universities and colleges go to great lengths to find secure systems to help protect their critical data or proprietary information. Yet, some of the most important information can walk through a campus' front gates without anyone batting an eye.

By the time key employees retire or resign, they've usually accumulated years of valuable information. Yet their knowledge about the organization's processes, culture, personnel, or history rarely is captured or transferred to their successor, human resources, or other staff members in their department. So successors come on board, spend valuable time learning what was already known, repeat old mistakes, and end up re-creating the same wheel.

But smart schools are trying nearly every approach-short of a Vulcan mind-meld-to encourage senior staff to start talking. Sometimes, departing administrators will write letters to their successor or grant access to once-sacred computer files. It doesn't really matter how the knowledge is exchanged, just as long as it's done.

Having another person's Rolodex is one thing. Getting people to return your calls is another.

When Ken Ryalls came on board as the vice president of Academic Affairs at Nebraska Methodist College in Omaha roughly two years ago, his predecessor wrote him several private letters that outlined her views on some of the school's major issues, problems, and personalities.

Although HR wasn't the catalyst behind these letters, it's certainly something that HR departments can experiment with or initiate since the idea does prove effective.

"I try to take everything with a grain of salt, but I thought it was very helpful information to have so that I wasn't walking into blind spots," Ryalls says. He found himself re-reading them a month or two later, after he'd gotten to know people. Having that perspective, he adds, "changed how I did my job." For example, he reorganized his department a bit differently than he initially would have done. The letters also warned him of political hotspots so he was more cautious about how he approached certain aspects of the reorganization.

Still, not everyone gives this knowledge-sharing method a nod. Ryalls recalls how his former boss at another organization also received a letter from his predecessor but never read it because he wanted to offer a fresh perspective instead of becoming tainted by another person's views.

But when people retire or leave of their own volition, these letters can be a saving grace if they address areas such as the status of current projects, stumbling blocks, top priorities, personnel concerns, and "some of the people you can trust," Ryalls says.

During a several-month period, Ronald Crutcher received weekly e-mails and phone calls from the outgoing president at Wheaton College (Mass.), Dale Rogers Marshall. At the time, Crutcher served as a provost at Ohio's Miami University.

"Once it was clear that I was going to be their president, she sent me very important information about planning and background information on the budget process for that particular year," he says. Although the budget process had been completed, the information still helped him identify the school's problems and priorities.

She also invited him to one full board of directors meeting, several key committee meetings, and two of the board's executive committee meetings, one in which the college's vice presidents were being evaluated. Although he wasn't involved in actual decision-making, Crutcher had the chance to begin building valuable relationships, demonstrating his work style, and sharing his vision with the leadership team long before he officially stepped foot on campus.

Then there was the commencement ceremony Crutcher attended with his family and the alumni reunion meetings he dropped in on, accompanied by the president, that same weekend. Together, they worked out what to say. "It was very useful for me to get a sense of what the routine was like," says Crutcher, who joined Wheaton in March 2004. "Last year, I felt very comfortable doing it because I had already done it before."

Crutcher, who is African American, believes this process is particularly helpful for females or people of color who enter a predominantly male and Caucasian leadership environment because it can shatter stereotypes or misperceptions.

He believes knowledge transfer should be a standard practice for exiting staff but optional for incoming administrators who may not have the luxury of taking time off from their current position to participate in such activities. At the very least, HR can make them the offer.

"When I arrived on my first day, I felt as if I were coming back home," he says. "That's how comfortable I felt here."

The most common type of knowledge lost from executive ranks is social knowledge, which encompasses the relationships people build with major donors, corporations, community organizations, or colleagues.

The very concept of knowledge transfer sets off alarm bells for those who closely protect their intellectual turf.

When university or college executives leave their job, they take those relationships with them. "As one person said to me, 'It's one thing to have another person's Rolodex, it's another to get people to return your calls,'" explains David DeLong, HR consultant and author of Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce (Oxford University Press, 2004).

More people will wade through these types of transitional periods in the coming decade, when many of the estimated 78.2 million baby boomers will retire from the workforce. On every day in 2006, 7,918 workers will turn 60, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Colleges and universities are not exempt from this labor crisis. DeLong points to MIT, where he serves as a research fellow at the school's AgeLab, as an example. He knows of at least one department that mostly supports senior faculty. As those faculty members start retiring, one by one, the department will face challenges.

HR departments need to identify areas where their school is most vulnerable, DeLong says. A good starting point is to develop an age profile of its key workforce. With awareness of who's approaching retirement, an institution can be better prepared to fill in the gaps when needed, identify what knowledge may be at risk, and develop a knowledge transfer plan.

Spending time with those individuals is a next step. Take them to lunch in order to assess their capabilities, learn what information is critical to retain, and explore the possibility of mentoring opportunities or ways for them to stay connected with the school on an ongoing basis. Asking about their computer files is also important. Are they accessible and understandable to others? Are they in a file format that can be used by their successor? Are they clearly labeled?

"You'd be amazed at how infrequently this is done," DeLong says, adding that knowledge about staff's strengths and weaknesses and how to motivate them are more examples of lost information.

Schools can pay a high price for ignoring knowledge transfer. DeLong tells the story of UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, the clinical partner of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The hospital system had to voluntarily stop performing elective heart surgeries last year for six weeks because the death rate among cardiac-bypass patients had grown to be considered unacceptable-about double the statewide average in 2003.

Part of the problem was lack of leadership. DeLong says the medical center was unable to find a qualified successor for the head of cardiac surgery, which led to deterioration in the performance of that unit. And, as one might expect, the situation tainted the public's view of UMass.

Arrogance can be a culprit during transitions, too. "There is a profound arrogance about the concept of needing to manage knowledge in many university areas," says Les McKeown, president and CEO of EVNA, an HR consulting firm.

McKeown explains that Ivy League schools often hire "superstars" who are more committed to individual than collective knowledge management. A huge part of their identity is wrapped up in their knowledge, which they dearly guard. So the concept of knowledge transfer does nothing more than set off alarm bells for people who try to protect their intellectual turf.

It's time for HR to get creative. Consider electronic bulletin boards where staff members can share problems and solutions online. The information can be captured, stored, and read by other employees experiencing similar problems.

Or how about enterprise-wide e-mail management? McKeown says one version of Google indexes all documentation on a computer network, including e-mails. So if employees in multiple departments are succession planning, ideas can be "repurposed" with others undergoing that challenge.

The list of potential techniques is long. Besides writing letters and developing a shadow program, exit interviews present prime information-gathering opportunities for HR. So does recording information from important meetings or conversations. Find someone in the successor's department to handle this task since that person would have a true understanding of the department's priorities, he says.

McKeown knows of schools that set up soft orientations or one-on-one meetings between successors and key players, both internal and external, to address everything from frustrations to long-term goals.

Just keep in mind: Presentation is everything when selling a new idea. Introduce the concept of knowledge transfer to incoming senior staff rather than try to rewire existing execs, who may be more set in their ways.

"You've got to educate, you've got to motivate, you've got to influence, but you can't mandate," says McKeown. "It's not that sort of environment. In my experience, if HR successfully implemented just one of those [ideas], it would make a significant change and jump forward."

Carol Patton, a Las Vegas-based freelance writer, specializes in covering human resources issues.