Avoiding Single Points of Failure Through Knowledge Sharing

Knowledge management is all about making sure that all components of an organization, project, or task can work together regardless of staff rotation. We capture, store, share, analyze, and share some more precisely because who’s coming or going will change. Sadia Syeda uses a term of art from engineering—single point of failure—to posit a model of effective project management: “involve-index-inform” to avoid said failure through knowledge sharing.—Editor

Author: Sadia Syeda

In technical terms, the concept of a single point of failure refers to a critical component of a system, whose failure can seriously degrade or stop all system functions. The same concept plagues project management as well. Depending on a few critical members of the team who work independently without sharing their knowledge can potentially lead to single point of failure for a project execution. When a key member of the team who holds significant knowledge about the project leaves the project or becomes unavailable due to some unforeseen reason, it jeopardizes the successful completion of the project. A new member or other team members then have to spend valuable time bringing themselves up to speed because their colleague left them with a knowledge gap. Sometimes, of course, such instances are unavoidable, but those of us who manage complex projects should always have plans and processes in place to quickly manage and fill such gaps. Sharing information at the right level with the right set of people within a team is key to avoiding a serious setback in project execution. The key is how to share information within the team, without causing an information overload or overextending project resources. Building a knowledge sharing culture and managing it effectively is critical for contingency planning to handle any failure or unforeseeable event. MITRE has been making huge investments in knowledge management efforts and tools. Executives here understand the importance of eliciting, sharing, and storing tacit and explicit knowledge. Even though the infrastructure for knowledge sharing exists, sometimes we face the problem of not being able to use the benefits completely. A gap in knowledge management frequently occurs not due to the unavailability of resources; but because most employees are not aware of where to find the information. A good project manager can help create awareness of tools and how to use them.

MITRE’s recent publication of Your Guide to Connecting Projects, People, Content, and Partners is a step in the direction of fostering knowledge sharing awareness. Another cause of gaps in knowledge management that I have encountered is over-reliance on individuals for completing specific tasks. Knowledge needs to be diffused within a team or the organization through proper channels. For example, MITRE offers Atlassian’s JIRA issue tracking software for those of us managing software development projects. Such tools enable us to avoid situations where important information is stored only on an individual’s personal computer rather than on a shared site that everyone can see at any time. There has to be a way of socializing project knowledge both within and outside the team.

I have begun experimenting with a threefold approach to promote constant knowledge sharing and reduce gaps in the flow of knowledge.

Involve: On the projects I lead, each task has at least one secondary point of contact (POC) who is prepared to take the ownership for its planning, execution, and outcome in the absence of the primary POC. The secondary POC is sometimes a less experienced member of the team, but is still working full time on the task alongside the primary. Sometimes this other POC is primary on another task. We are careful to not waste resources. This team building also indirectly helps in succession planning and developing new individual intellectual capital given that transferring knowledge through individuals can promote transfer of both explicit and implicit knowledge. These transfer channels through individuals create strong interpersonal ties, which in turn help to facilitate the flow of tacit knowledge. We expect to notice a significant uptick in knowledge retention as a result of hands-on experience alongside a subject matter expert. This will boost team morale.

Index: Indexing refers to the process of categorizing and storing knowledge. Fortunately, MITRE’s IT infrastructure heavily supports this practice. Handled poorly, indexing can turn into a complex process of saving knowledge assets and using complex methods of categorizing, and can actually end up hindering the process of knowledge retrieval. Handled well, the captured knowledge will be organized intuitively. Folders on shared sites will contain minimal layers of sub-folders. Succinct naming conventions will govern folder labeling, and will guide the knowledge seeker to what they were searching for. This indexing mechanism will be as intuitive as possible and so well understood that others can re-use, analyze, and adapt the information to their specific needs.

Inform: Finally, sharing information about the task and all the important documents related to it with the larger team promotes coordination across various related tasks. This practice ensures that, once created, knowledge can be easily reused. Regular brown bag meetings or other social opportunities to share important findings and issues create transfer channels to inform a broader audience to adapt knowledge from one context to another. For an organization like MITRE, enabling reach back is essential to our ability to work with customers. Involving a secondary point of contact for tasks, indexing codified knowledge intuitively, and informing team members about each other’s specific work may help teams reach the goal of avoiding single points of failure in projects and reduce ineffective knowledge sharing.

I hope to return in a year with metrics demonstrating the value of this approach in concrete terms. In the interim, how do these observations mesh with your techniques for keeping knowledge flowing?

© 2016 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved.Approved for public release; distribution unlimited. Case number 16-0082 

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