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Tackling Succession Planning Woes Head On

July 21, 2022
Min Read
Woman across the table from 2 men talking

Succession planning is best told in story form. See if Pat’s story sounds familiar.

As Pat stared at the dashboard output, she couldn’t help thinking ‘I wish Mike was here as he knows this plant inside out and these numbers would make so much more sense to him.’ She couldn’t tell if the numbers were outside the normal range of operation according to the specification or if they were part of a normal spike. Maybe she could get Mike on his cell although she hated to bother him, now he was retired. Maybe I should ask Dillion but he has only been on the job a month and this is his first time working at this type of plant. Sigh… Ok I will call the consultant as they will know since they installed the automated system but I do hate being dependent on staff outside our own organization.

Succession planning woes

I hear similar monologues when visiting clients at their facilities. The ‘know how’ of operations held in the memories of older or retired workers. The ‘know what‘ or critical data siloed away in automated systems. The marriage of these two information streams often not occurring.

workforce retirement adds to succession planning woes

The lack of unification stems from the nexus of three major trends:

  • The retirement wave in the current workforce
  • The great resignation that rose with the Covid pandemic in which many mid-career employees left who were part of the succession plan
  • The difficulty public agencies have in successfully recruiting in the ‘war for talent”

Digital solutions such as automation, digital systems, dashboards, and sensors help resolve this challenge and provide staff with operational insights of their facilities but these alone are not enough. Knowledge capture and transfer represent a core piece to smooth succession planning.

Understanding the three types of knowledge

Understanding the knowledge held or used by employees helps to identify methods to capture that information for future use.

There are three core types of knowledge:

  • Explicit - documented information
  • Implicit - applied information gained from experience
  • Tacit - understood information not easily explained but gives crucial context

These three types come together to form the spectrum of how we pass information to each other, learn, and grow. Technology can robustly bolster the access employees have to explicit information (Workflow/Process Mapping, Asset Inventory, Data Flows, Policies, Schedules, Security, Governance, etc.) as these artifacts were built and captured based on the directions an organization is going with the digital transformation. In many cases, implicit information may also originate from machine learning and modeling insights. However, tacit knowledge of infrastructure systems also drives meaningful decision-making.

>>You Might Also Like: The Rise of Digital Transformation Roles in the Municipal Infrastructure Industry

 Focusing on tacit knowledge

The father of tacit knowledge, Michael Polanyi, described it by using a bicycle analogy. He asserted that riding a bike had nothing to do with reading about riding (explicit knowledge) but more about finding one’s own balancing point and coordinating multiple muscles to successfully ride the bike without awareness of doing so (tacit knowledge).

For proactive organizations, succession planning involves using techniques such as job-shadowing and mentoring to transfer that tacit knowledge in combination with a digital strategy. Employees gain direct experience and master the context and framing of what data means within their own facilities and environment.

For example, long-term plant operators can tell how their plants are working simply by the subtle shifts in the smell of the air when they come to work. These employees are much like Master Chefs or Sommeliers in their blending of the data with knowledge. Their personal experiences, intuition, and learned nuances are all part of their tacit knowledge that they use to navigate their work world every day.

Thanks to advancements in technology, capturing knowledge aligns nicely with rising digital transformation efforts.

The digital transformation of knowledge

A recent blog post “Understanding the Differences Between a Digital Journey and Digital Strategy” broke down the components of digital transformation:

  • Digital journey: includes the technical and non-technical resource changes to make over time to get to a future state
  • Digital strategy: sets the course for what you should focus on to accomplish long-term objectives, driving functions such as process, policy, and budgeting

When it comes to knowledge capture, digital transformation might look like:

  • Upgrading a manual data entry and reporting process to an automated system
  • Connecting siloed data sets with a data analytics platform to enable easier access to insights
  • Using artificial intelligence/machine learning for forecasting and complex analytics

Another piece to digital transformation involves understanding the different levels of experience employees can contribute.

The two key players in succession planning

Addressing succession woes head-on also means identifying the two largest players in knowledge risk: novices who don’t have all the skills needed yet to run operations independently and seasoned experts who might walk away with all the knowledge they have built.

We know from many examples there is a big difference between a novice and an expert as any who has written code will tell you. A major difference between a novice and an expert is how they look at a problem.

  • A novice has little experience to rely upon so they must methodically and explicitly break down a problem and may struggle with what to focus on and what to ignore
  • An expert has both knowledge and experience to apply to a problem, seeing it in a more abstract way to visualize the larger picture and not be distracted by irrelevant information

Moving from novice to expert involves a lot of repetitive experimentation on the same problem. Luckily, the same problems with facilities don’t repeat themselves routinely but rather haphazardly in nature. Thus, having access to repetitive learning allows new staff to ‘play’ through various scenarios with a hands-on experience learning style that best suits most adults.

Moreover, these digital solutions enable seasoned operators and staff with many years of experience to train new generations of operators and technicians without physically being together. Facility managers can literally share their views or troubleshoot problems through wearable technology or use artificial intelligence to predict system performance with hypothetical scenarios.  

Some solutions on the market today unify data from all assets, sensors, rain gauges, and models in a single dashboard to empower data-backed decisions, whether its understanding potential sewer overflow risks or identifying progress towards meeting a water industry regulation.

>> Learn more about the CAST Platform

Using a digital-first mindset for succession planning

Build a durable digital strategy with a future-proof succession plan. Learn more about the role of digital solutions in your succession planning in an one-hour digital strategy intro workshop.

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Written by
Dr. Claire Baldwin
Organizational Management and Effectiveness Specialist
Dr. Claire Baldwin has 30+ years in infrastructure design & construction, specializing in industrial psychology and change management.

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