Tuesday 17 August 2010

Job swap day

A story from Paul O'Noal (CGIAR) in 2001

It wasn't billed as a KM exercise at the time. Some years ago I worked for a small sister institute in the Netherlands. I forget exactly why but... we had a one day workshop (actually 10AM-4PM) on "The Fun of Working Together."

The fun bit was that people changed jobs for the day. Even more fun was comparing notes afterwards. This was supposed to last an hour. It went for
over 3 hours and I can't remember many more entertaining evenings in the office. People wept with laughter and powerful lessons were learned, some of which concerned knowledge management.

Here's what happened:

Tasks were prepared by job holders for their temporary replacements to do. No, the cleaning lady didn't get to write to the President of the World Bank (but it might have gained more news coverage than anything else done that year) but... Senior staff accustomed to being served were suddenly placed in service roles in central files, in the telecoms office, in the travel office etc. Junior staff got to make life interesting for their bosses without really trying and they also enjoyed a somewhat stress-free day.

Some people's participation was only grudingly given and in a few cases it was withheld on the grounds that nobody else could possibly stand in for them. This missed the point, but it didn't matter, total participation wasn't necessary.

A vignette will suffice:

Urgent fax from Dr.X proves to have an incorrect fax nr. Dr.X has left for the airport and is uncontactable. Fax operator/telephonist has to tear hair to get the right number (not in address database). Fax machine plays up. Meanwhile, a visitor who is unheard of must be found and a message delivered. Outgoing message must be sent. Incoming calls repeatedly interrupt. Senior staff member asks how he is possibly supposed to file anything when he keeps being interrupted and when people don't share their contact information etc. etc. A fax arrives that needs a special manual procedure to be deliverable. It's not documented. Senior staff member doesn't speak the language when he gets through. At 5PM senior staff member is exhausted and day's work is hardly started.


Other people's jobs are harder than they look; you only think you know about
Tacit knowledge is used all the time
An ounce of making tacit knowledge explicit would save a lot of money in wasted staff time and improved performance
Moving people even temporarily can expose failures to make adequate backup arrangements clear (also sense of humor failures)
The comparing notes/performance appraisal process afterwards was HILARIOUS but yielded many ideas for ensuring the capture and use of tacit knowledge

Going into this exercise, many people were reluctant and saw it as pointless because letters would not sent for real, or calls made etc.In practice it didn't matter. So much was learned all round that it was agreed to repeat the excercise in future.

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