Your Organization Risks Massive Knowledge Loss Should a Senior Employee Fall Sick. What Are You Doing to Prepare?

By: | January 19, 2021

Paula Vene Smith directs the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project (PREP) and is a professor at Grinnell College. Paula consults on risk in higher education, and has written Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders. She can be reached at [email protected]

Two weeks from the end of 2020, one of my husband’s co-workers — I’ll call him Tom — suffered a health calamity.

Waiting for news from the hospital and worrying about his colleague, my husband also had to consider how Tom’s job would get covered. They work in the same department, but that doesn’t mean they know everything about each other’s projects.

Tom was the employee you could count on to check in frequently, even as everyone shifted to working from home. Now communication was cut off. One family member could visit him at a time, but Tom was in no state to answer questions or direct others to carry out tasks.

An issue that quickly surfaced: timecard approval. In two days, a set of timecards had to be approved or workers supervised by Tom would not receive their pay.

My husband wanted Tom not to worry, to be assured that at work everything was going fine. He met briefly with Tom’s wife and son in a parking lot — all of them wearing masks — to convey a few personal items from Tom’s office.

“Have you found the blue folder?” Tom’s wife asked. My husband didn’t understand the question until she explained: “He carries that folder back and forth between home and the office. It contains whatever he’s working on.”

My husband went straight to Tom’s office. He spotted a bright blue, unlabeled folder on Tom’s desk. And that folder contained just what was needed: checklists, employee ID codes, logins for regular suppliers, in-process receipts and invoices, contacts in and outside the organization, and more.

Other staff members who work with Tom were not surprised to learn about the folder. Tom is that kind of guy.

But let’s be honest: Most of us keep the vital ingredients of our work life scattered around, some even residing only in our heads, no more secure and a lot less accessible.

We’re still sending cards and good wishes to Tom, who hasn’t come home yet but was able to sit up and watch his NFL team clinch their playoff spot last Sunday. In his honor, my husband and I — and some other co-workers who heard the story — have inaugurated blue folders of our own. For each person, the folder will look different. For instance, if we don’t feel it’s safe to write down passwords, we might just indicate by what steps someone can seek access.

Folder contents are based on two principles: “What do I need to carry back and forth for my job?” and “What would someone else need if they had to take over?” It’s common nowadays to work in more than one space, whether a staff rotates days in the office for low density or we go to another room to take a Zoom call.

Some things just go on hold when emergency strikes. Writing projects, ideas for innovation, networking plans — these don’t leave anyone waiting.

But time-sensitive items that others depend on — payroll, transactions with clients, preparations for a class soon to begin or already running — go in the blue folder.

Beginning the year with a fresh look at day-to-day risks, what steps might you take to create your own blue folder — and let the right people know how to find it? &

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