THE ARTS ORGANIZATIONS AT A CROSSROADS TOOLKIT:
Managing Transitions and Preserving Assets

By

Written and developed by Mollie Quinlan-Hayes and published by NCAPER, the National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response

Funded By

This project was produced by NCAPER with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts to South Arts, the administrative home of NCAPER, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

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Protecting Your Knowledge Assets

You must carve out time and attention to harvest and document what your people know - whether your organization is stable, downsizing, or expanding – to build your organization’s resilience. It demonstrates leadership and respect.

 

Many of us rely on our creativity and flexibility to keep our organizations running. “There’s no time to dedicate to cross-training – if someone’s not here, we’ll figure it out.” Job descriptions may become out of date, little attention paid until we have a vacancy and need to advertise and realize how much work the person in that position has actually absorbed during their tenure. (The joke that’s not a joke – “it’ll take two or three people to replace them!”)

Your people, and what they know, are your greatest asset. The most valuable knowledge isn’t captured in any job description; it’s the “deep smarts” founders and long-time staff have. What factors do they weigh when they’re making key decisions? How did long-standing relationships with other organizations come to be? What are the “absolutes” to keep the organization in good standing? How do they navigate conversations with key supporters and funders? Rooted in experience and history, this invisible knowledge often truly disappears with the individual’s departure.

The approach of ‘figuring it out’ is a time and energy drain, at best, and a depletion of productivity, money, morale, and relationships, at worst. You must carve out time and attention to harvest and document what your people know - whether your organization is stable, downsizing, or expanding – to build your organization’s resilience. It demonstrates leadership and respect.

The accompanying Knowledge Capture and Transfer Tool can be downloaded and customized for either person-to-person knowledge sharing, or for individuals to capture their own job functions.

Why do we so often put off a process of “downloading” what people know? Two common barriers are The Time Trap, and Founder’s Syndrome.

By making resilience an organizational priority, you release your people from the Time Trap.

The Time Trap

You’ve likely heard about or felt yourself in this trap – founders and staff who don’t feel they can retire – or even leave temporarily! - because they hold critical institutional knowledge. They are so busy doing what only they can do, there’s never time to train anyone else. By making resilience an organizational priority, you release them from this trap. It will allow your valued team members to actually take that long-awaited family trip, go on sabbatical, undergo a knee replacement – without undue stress. Consider the relief for everyone knowing that there’s a way for them to download their most critical knowledge and experience! Then they can depart with confidence that all they’ve invested will be carried on.

 

Founder’s Syndrome

It can be easy to understand the difficulty a founder, or long-term executive, might have with releasing the reins and sharing the experience, relationships, and knowledge they’ve developed over years and, perhaps, decades. They truly have built the organization from the ground up with their vision, energy, sweat and love. Their identity is tied closely to the organization. They may, consciously or unconsciously, believe that no one else can fill their shoes – and they may be right! However, they are actually human, and at some point they’ll need to step down.

 

How to encourage them to share what they know? It’s key to treat them with the respect and gratitude they deserve.

  • Everyone needs to acknowledge that beginning a discussion of succession planning doesn’t mean that the leader is ready to immediately leave, or that they’re being asked to. It’s just best practice.

  • Appeal to their love of the organization. Surely they want it protected, should something unexpected happen to them. If no one else can maintain the organization’s activities and funding relationships, the organization they’ve built so passionately can be at risk.

  • Appeal to their ego. It probably ISN’T realistic that one person will be able to take on all that they do. They do so much instinctively, and no one really KNOWS all that they do day in and day out! Using a knowledge capture approach, they can analyze the many pieces of their job and break it apart into different skillsets. This way, the organization will be better equipped to know the priorities, and how responsibilities may need to be distributed amongst multiple folks.

  • Appeal to their sense of equity. Leadership is about power. The creation of an organization may have relied on one charismatic personality. Now, by engaging team members who may not yet be at a senior level, new and diverse voices can be brought to light. Opportunities for emerging leaders can be identified, and the next phase of the organization can be sure to have an expansion of power and decision-making.

A Leadership Example

“The area of most concern to me is that our institutional knowledge became so thin, no more than one person remained who knew specific things,” said Deb Gilpin, executive director of the Madison Children’s Museum. “From community knowledge to physical building issues: How to make the boiler not blow out the air filtration system!” She’s found a silver lining during COVID: an opportunity to restructure the staff team. “We can tell already we’re going to have less staff [when we fully reopen] – that’s common across the [museum] field. But we’ll be much less siloed, have much more cross-training, and we are incentivizing it. You get a raise if you’re trained in a different area. This ‘thin-ness’ of institutional knowledge is what we’re trying to fix for the future. It’s also a way, along with a raise in our minimum wage, to bring more junior members into new areas, and move into pre-leadership spots and up the hierarchy.”

By doing cross-training person-to-person, you bake immediate capacity into the process. The person being trained elicits the information and is likely to ask questions and seek information the trainer wouldn’t even think of, because it’s second nature to them. Through shadowing, the trainee gets hands-on experience, and in the end is much more prepared to be ready to step into the role temporarily if necessary.

Guidance on Capturing and Transferring Staff Knowledge

(While the term ‘staff’ is used here, for organizations with working boards, or with volunteers or contractors in key roles, these key individuals should be involved.)

What is knowledge capture and transfer?

  • A constructed plan to share job-specific knowledge, and institutional knowledge, between multiple people, to provide greater business continuity.  It’s a combination of transferring both “what” and “how” a position’s critical functions are carried out. The most effective method is person-to-person sharing, along with documentation of critical information. If this is simply not possible, as an alternative you can have key staff members individually document how they carry out critical business functions.

 

Why do it?

  • To preserve your knowledge assets and prevent them from loss

  • So that you don’t lose time or money due to absent staffers

  • To enable you to react more quickly to disruptions and changes, and make your organization more agile

  • To let your people demonstrate skills they don’t get to use in their current position; over time this can increase opportunities for employee advancement

  • To allow team members to help build a stronger organization, by offering their ideas for improved processes and approaches

  • To relieve pressure on staff members who feel unable to take leave, or are anxious about what would happen if they became suddenly ill or absent, because they’re the only keeper of the knowledge

  • To begin to design succession plans

Getting buy in:

  • Staff members get to expand their skillset, can grow professionally, and demonstrate the capacity to move up the ladder. It creates explicit opportunities for young employees, employees of color and personnel newer to the field to explore other roles and have opportunities for advancement.

  • Cross-training can encourage teamwork and morale. Staff members better understand others’ roles and contributions and find themselves valued for their own.

  • It provides employees with greater flexibility should they need planned or unplanned time off; they can go with less stress, knowing someone is able to cover things while they’re gone.

  • You should provide recognition, rewards, and incentives in the process since this isn’t part of their current job responsibilities. The Madison Children’s Museum provides a pay raise to staffers who complete cross-training in a new area. And provide time “on the clock” for these activities.

Cautions:

  • Trust, in management and in each other, is imperative for knowledge capture and sharing to be successful

  • Be sure to set expectations and clarity before launching the project. Will there be extra pay provided since this is a new responsibility? How can (or will) everyone benefit, and participate? What are the expectations about people taking over others’ responsibilities for a period of time? How can you create fairness in what might seem a new burden? It needs to be clear (and true!) that this is not a campaign to reduce your workforce, and that people’s current employment isn’t at risk.

  • Don’t let this process become bogged down in endless checklists and long written descriptions. Be selective about what you’re recording on paper – you want to document enough that the trainee can step into the role temporarily, but capturing how the person in the position makes decisions, is responsible to others, and sets priorities is just as critical.

  • Involve your HR professional in the process to ensure you’re complying with regulations and policies.

Which positions should have cross-training?

It may not make sense for every position to participate, depending on the size and structure of your team. But you do need to provide equitable opportunities. You may also need to decide if anyone on the team has the ability to “opt-out” of participating (and on what basis).

If you’re not able to institute an agency-wide program all at once, think about these criteria to determine the most critical areas to start with:

  • Which functions would cause the greatest liability if they’re not carried out – artistically, financially, legally, artistically, reputationally?

  • Who has long tenure and the bulk of institutional memory?

  • Who is closest to retirement?

Make it Stick

Have your staff do a “rotation” every few months, carrying out for a half- or full-day the job they’ve cross-trained for

How to match people up for cross-training:

  • Do you want the cross-training to be reciprocal – a team of two trains for each other’s role, like accountability partners – or do you want it to be one-way?

  • In pairing up, think about the critical business functions, and information that lives only with one person. Good matches might not be obvious. If your Technical Director is the person who not only hires stagehands and runs the show, but is the only contact with your equipment vendors, carries out safety inspections, and has the information to reach the company managers of upcoming guest companies – that’s definitely information that should be in more than one brain. Cross-training for their role might not need to cover how to run the sound board or what your inventory of light trees is. It might make more sense to pair them with someone in an administrative or fiscal position who has similar skills in information management and is good at details, rather than another theatre technician. The goal of cross-training is to get at critical functions and thought processes, those that create risk if they’re not carried out. 

  • Does this position deal with sensitive/confidential information, and how will that be handled during cross-training?

  • You may also want to pair up cross-training between positions that are least likely to both be affected at once. And don’t overlook seasonal employees and contractors with critical functions.

 

The capturing and sharing of knowledge should be through interaction and conversation as much as possible, with hands-on learning. People often aren’t aware of how much they actually know and do until they’re asked, so it’s much more valuable for someone else to ask about and document how to do the job, than have the employee fill out a form on their own.

Documenting the physical steps of a critical task is valuable; however, there are important elements of most positions that go beyond the technical way to carry them out. Look at the larger role and how the position intersects with others.

 

Offer shadowing. Have the trainee sit in on meetings, calls and the carrying out of critical functions. Have an opportunity to debrief. Why did you respond this way to the donor? How did you arrive at making that recommendation? What alternatives might you have offered?

DISCLAIMER

The information included in this Toolkit was culled from sources available to the public, with input and review by field and subject matter experts. Every effort was made to present current and correct information as of July, 2021. This Toolkit does not represent legal guidance, and is provided for informational purposes. The author and publisher cannot be responsible for any losses or failures users experience as a result of using this information.

This Toolkit Includes Material From:

The American Association for State and Local History, Amy Schindler/University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Libraries, Arts Advisory Board, Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, Bancroft Library/University of California at Berkeley, Beth Kattelman/Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at Ohio State University, BlueAvocado.org, Christopher Hochstetler/Stuhr Museum, Deborah Gilpin/Madison Children’s Museum, Deloitte, Edgepoint, the Glendale Star, Greg Hunter/Council of Nonprofits, Harvard Business Review, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, Jean-Phillipe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker/Aspen/Santa[MQH1]  Fe Ballet, Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman/Nonprofit Sustainability, Judy Polacheck/Polacheck HR Law LLC, Krystal Siebrandt, HBE LLP, LaRue Allen/Martha Graham Dance Company, Leigh Grinstead/LYRASIS, Michael Ibrahim and the MassCultural Council, Mindtools, Oral History Association, Performing Arts Readiness, Stephanie Mattoon/Baird Holm Attorneys at Law, Stephanie Plummer and the Nebraska Arts Council, Susana Smith Batista, Voice of Witness, the Wallace Foundation and AEA Consulting. Thanks to Beth Kattelman, Claire West, Deborah Gilpin, Leigh Grinstead, Lynn Dates and Stephanie Plummer. Special thanks to Jan Newcomb/NCAPER, and Tom Clareson, Performing Arts Readiness project. Design by Lynn Dates.