Formal mentoring and peer networking systems. Initial training, no matter how sophisticated and effective, should be reinforced with well-developed mentoring and peer networking systems. These can reduce the actual calendar time needed to develop expertise.
An internal social-networking system is an excellent candidate for improving effectiveness of peer networks for various team roles (and indirectly even can help in employee retention). By creating professional groups based on roles within these networks, companies can develop an actively engaged and interacting community of peers to support newcomers. Inexperienced members can use their sub-networks to identify formal mentors as well as for informal contacts. Young graduates already are familiar with this approach thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Some firms, the Dow Chemical Co. for example, also have invested in such networks for current employees and alumni.
Social networking software now is well developed enough to have a simple easy-to-use interface suitable for even the most ardent computer skeptic.
Traditional formal mentoring programs also can help pass along knowledge. However, to be effective instead of frustrating to mentees, a program must provide training on how to mentor, as well as tangible rewards to the mentor. Establishing a simple matching program to assign a mentor without formal training or ongoing monitoring of mentor/mentee engagement can quickly lead to disenchantment and failure of mentoring efforts.
Project knowledge bases and Wikis. These also can serve as useful tools. A knowledge base is an indexed and categorized collection of questions with answers to issues and situations commonly encountered during project execution. It’s a good way to automatically capture knowledge from soon-to-retire workers. A wiki explains technical terms. Both can be implemented with minimal investment in software. However, software alone isn’t enough — for knowledge bases and wikis to be effective it’s important to provide proper incentives to experienced employees to contribute.
Improved lessons-learned sharing via case study discussions. While most companies require project leaders and participants to submit a lessons-learned report at the conclusion of a project, such reports usually are filed in a central database with poor accessibility and retrieval interfaces. In addition, the laundry-list-like content of such reports isn’t conducive to effective learning — nor are the lack of feedback or practice when trying to digest the information.
So, instead implement a case study system of learning. Don’t require project teams to submit a long list of lessons — ask them to prepare a case study around the most critical lesson learned. It should provide a brief overview of the technical or execution challenge encountered. Make the case study open-ended to encourage discussion and brainstorming by its users. To increase effectiveness, require the project leader to conduct a few discussion sessions for inexperienced personnel. Case study learning has proven to be very effective in teaching open-ended concepts within business schools where each situation demands a unique application of ideas and tools. This method can yield dramatic results in increased application of lessons learned in future projects.
The practices we’ve covered can quickly help turn inexperienced people into productive members of project teams. Some can be implemented rapidly while others may take a few months to complete. Information technology is an enabler for each practice but achieving desired results demands incentives and culture changes. Don’t implement all practices at the same time. Instead, match the proposed benefits of each against project team needs and company culture and start with the highest value practices.
Adnan Siddiqui, P.E., is principal of ConceptSys Solutions LLC, Houston. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.