Drowning in a Fountain of Knowledge

In most companies, departments, and teams, one can find team members that have been there for ages. You know the type: early employee, highly respected, exceedingly valuable to the organization. They know they are in charge of the preservation of the oral lore regarding why Things Were Done That Way, What Were They Thinking, and all sorts of tricks and tips that come in handy daily.

Every new employee quickly learns that these people are sort of like a local Wikipedia node. And even when they don’t know the answer, these knowledge sources, more often than not, are at least capable of pointing you at the right person to ask, effectively becoming a router.

They are often lifesavers, time savers; you name it. You will likely be hard pressed to find a person in the organization that doesn’t value them and their input. These people are precious, and every workplace would be lucky to have more than a couple of them handy.

However, as with every power, this position brings on a big responsibility. As with a developer that doesn’t ever make an effort to commit something to memory because it’s always one Stack Overflow search away, the same can quickly happen here. The knowledgeable person (KP) becomes involved with more and more things. This creates a dependency across your entire organization, as well as a big glaring bottleneck.

Some great KPs automatically recoil from this position, making sure only to step up when people really need them. I’ve worked with one such great KP who knew precisely how to make sure he doesn’t routinely hand out all the answers too quickly; otherwise no one will ever learn. Unfortunately, this isn’t the typical case.

We all like feeling knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and needed. Therefore it is often too easy to answer whatever question pops up. However, as a team grows, it is crucial for the organization to develop more and more knowledge centers, even if they are shallower, as long as they are interspersed across the organization more equally.

This kind of issue is much like we have with a leader that’s taking on much more responsibility than needed, though with leaders we are usually more sensitive to such an issue and less so with individual contributors. That’s why KPs might go unnoticed without sounding any warning bells for quite some time.

These team members are great, as long as they don’t become a crutch, and don’t hinder the growth of the rest of the team. If people grow accustomed to having this exoskeletal brain, they’ll never use the brain behind their brows. I’ve talked to two different VPs recently about their KPs. One was completely unaware, and the other was already in the process of coaching his.

Steps to handle your KPs

  1. Identify: take stock of your team. Do you have 1-3 team members that have become routers for knowledge and decision flows? They’re likely KPs.
  2. Discuss: talk to the KPs openly, to assess how much of their work comes down to sharing knowledge and how they see this situation. Agree on the areas where they should remain the leading figures and which peripheral areas you would both want to see become common knowledge.
  3. Coach: ultimately, the solution is to coach them in becoming proper coaches themselves. They should be able to discern when they need to keep their mouths shut versus when the situation warrants intervention.