When Institutional Knowledge is lost

dvsDave

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So, I'm working on an article for future use about the importance of Institutional Knowledge.

I'm sure that some of you have run into situations where a long-time staff member leaves, or there is an unexpected death, and you end up with a sudden loss of Critical Institutional Knowledge.

What I am looking for are stories about what happened, what was lost, and if it was ever recovered or rediscovered, and if so, how?

If you have a story about this, I would dearly love to hear it, especially if you have stories from a high school drama / technical theatre department.
 

What Rigger?

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Aug 24, 2006
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PPT.
We lost a guy on a show due to starting his own business. Probelm: he had the most automation programming/troubleshooting experience on the crew. So suddenly we were without the head of the snake. The rest of us had about the same degree of knowledge, but because we were not allowed to use it regularly (like the head guy, who did it outside of my show), had not actually grown in our knowledge.

This let to increased expense in having Fisher Technical staff come out to do our programming for some time until various circumstances came together for us to hire a couple of ex-FTSI folks into hourly positions on the show (for a short time until they were deservedly moved up to salaried designer positions).

So did we get the knowledge back? Yes, but it took over a year for it to be in house full time. The drawback being there is nobody present on a daily basis who is allowed into the parts of the software that will actually affect design change or wanted/needed adjustments. Sometimes we still have to wait anywhere from a couple of days/weeks or longer for someone to wiggle free for a night from whatever new and huge project has ahold of them.
 

Crisp image

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Jun 18, 2017
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Eastern Victoria Australia
It goes without saying that no one is indispensable. The cemetery is full of indispensable people.
Where I work I am the supervisor. I know lots of stuff. I would say much more that the others who work under me. I have been in my job for 2 years and never worked in this industry before and the others have been there somewhere between 3 and 4 years. Why do I know more than they? Because I look for things and answers. I have to to get the job done. I call it a daily journey of discovery.
I share what information I have gained in my job (which is not theatre) so that when I decide to move on people have the knowledge to carry on the job.
When I am at the theatre I am always trying to learn new stuff to make myself useful. In our little regional PAC we do everything- LX, SX, MX what ever needs to be done without demarcation as we all have skills that we share. EG I can hang a plot, cable it, patch it, program it quite confidently where as I can put audio gear together and get sound out if the speaker but may not be the best.
For me it is important to learn as much as I can and then pass this information on to the next person who needs is. There might be things that we shouldn't touch but that does not mean that we should not know about it to a point.
I have started a set of instructions for the people who I supervise so if I am not around they know where to start looking, building confidence in them to tackle the job and also making sure that they know when they can say I am not sure.
The guy I replaced was in the job for 12 years so knew the place inside out (He was there when they built it in stages so he should have) where as I learnt most of it by investigation and google. Not everything has been recovered but I am trying to ensure it is not lost again.
I guess we should remember all experts were beginners once.

Regards
Geoff
 
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almorton

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Caterham, Surrey, UK
In our theatre everyone is a volunteer, and many of us still have day jobs. We've recently had people leave the theatre because of other commitments which has exposed quite how reliant on specialist knowledge that they "carry in their head" we'd become, so I've been collaborating with another of the volunteers on putting down in hard copy everything we can think of which is "specialist" in some way, whether that's how to override the air con, how to set up a sound preset, how to reset the lighting state, anything that isn't obvious where someone coming in new would be asking questions. This means we have a reference for the "old hands" and also a starting point for new starter induction. I'm a great believer in sharing knowledge at work, I don't see that it should be different in my hobby.
 

rsmentele

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It goes to show just how important cross training is. It's theater and anything could happen. The SM could be hit by a bus on the way to the venue. Someone needs to be ready to step up and into the roll. The same goes for the business/professional would. Cross training is key. I've tried to always make myself aware of other roles within the company that employs me so that I can help when needed. Do I know Everything? no, but sometimes just enough to get us through a rough patch until we can fully recover. It's up to management and ownership of said company's or corporations to ensure this happens. It's part of being a 'boss' That's my opinion at least.
 

microstar

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Lawton, OK
I have found that around here the "tech person" for a high school auditorium (usually a drama, band/choir, or English teacher) gets little or no training when they are given that responsibility.
Basically no transfer of institutional knowledge and there is never a handbook or operations manual to even pass to the next person. Sad that students suffer because of it.
 

macsound

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San Francisco, CA
At my day job, it wasn't until I worked there about 1.5 years did my boss want to give me another task. That came in the question of her wondering what I did all day since when we passed in the hall, I always seemed busy or in this meeting or that.
I created a diagram for my main and most taxing dutues that got me a nomination for an award because it was so overly complicated and integral to about 50% of our products but none of management knew how it worked. There's one other person who knows what I do and he's been there 14 years. The next related person has been there 6 months. This company is notorious for waiting until after someone leaves to find a replacement, even if they agree to stay on for a month after quitting, so training your replacement is impossible.
 

dvsDave

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At my day job, it wasn't until I worked there about 1.5 years did my boss want to give me another task. That came in the question of her wondering what I did all day since when we passed in the hall, I always seemed busy or in this meeting or that.
I created a diagram for my main and most taxing dutues that got me a nomination for an award because it was so overly complicated and integral to about 50% of our products but none of management knew how it worked. There's one other person who knows what I do and he's been there 14 years. The next related person has been there 6 months. This company is notorious for waiting until after someone leaves to find a replacement, even if they agree to stay on for a month after quitting, so training your replacement is impossible.
Out of curiosity, do you still have that diagram?
 

jtweigandt

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Aug 2, 2013
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Moline Il
Ha.. I was the institutional knowlege in the booth of one of the Theaters that I volunteered for.. would help train and direct booth personel, and do some shows as well But due to politics and people who THOUGHT they knew better, I was edged out.. It hurt a bunch.. but they were the duly elected, so what can you do?
Roll forward 2 years... had gotten various calls for help over that time to which the reply was.. not my circus anymore.... But then they got a lightning strike..
Took out the sound board, stage monitors, soundfx board, and the ETC light board with less than 2 weeks to opening.. Karma's a bitch, but
the guy holding the crap stick was still a friend... so I spent the better part of a weekend... 2nd universe on the ETC board was still good, re program and patch.. check, Re installed the optical isolator that might have saved the first universe.. "what is this thing anyway?" check. Powered up the old sound console and actually saw smoke.. pulled it.. got a couple old amps out of storage, and got stage monitor feeds running again. Sound computer was good... just direct wired to amp and out to the house speakers... Then the questions came afterwards from a grateful board.. half of whom were friendlys.. half of whom were the idiot guard..... They wanted recommendations as to fixing the Light board, what sound equipment to purchase etc etc.... My reply.... "This was the Titanic... I pulled you out of the water, but I'm not getting you a warm towel and a deck chair" Havn't been back in the facility more than one or twice since. I have another Theater where most of my time is spent, and it's a much more professional collegial atmosphere... Anybody interested.. we gladly train .. but still only a few know where all the bodies are buried.
 

SteveB

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Mar 20, 2004
Location
Brooklyn, NY
I've 39 years at my facility. I designed and supervised the install (mostly) on all 5 theatrical lighting systems. I know the older half of the facilities electrical distribution better then the college electrician ever will (he's a good guy, but swamped). I'm the go-to person when they need to add/modify anything as I've been there and involved on pretty much everything in my time span.

When I leave there is zero possibility they will bring in my replacement early to learn anything about the systems. My tenured position is actually going to Local One IATSE, will probably not be a permanent position. If they are lucky there's one person who knows a lot about the systems and they will hire him. If too friggin bad. if they don't. I'm available as a consultant for $125 per hr., 4 hr. minimum.

As a story about the importance of maintaining continuity. About 80% of the 350 ETC S4 fixtures in use in our road house, plus our Ion console, are provided to us as a loan from the City of NY Dept. of Cultural Affairs. As part of that ongoing loan, we have to certify yearly they are in use in the facility, being maintained, etc... That certification letter used to go to our PAC GM, who would complete it and return and who retired in Nov. 2018. Nobody replaced him so nobody was checking the mail. The DCA got alarmed, had their lawyer contact the City University lawyers, who contacted the college, who replied with "Oh, that theaters been closed for renovation for 2 years, we don't know when it will re-open". Which was a clear violation of the terms that thus gear is supposed to be in some form of continual use. We are awaiting a decision as to whether we will be going in to collect all 200+ units plus a console to be returned to the city. That leaves only FOH gear at the theater.
 

JChenault

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Jan 5, 2009
Location
seattle, wa USA
Dave



About institutional knowledge being lost.

I think one aspect to consider is how to make sure such knowledge is not lost. I have three stories that talk to this.



When I got my first job as a TD at the University of Wisconsin / Madison. I arrived, and had no idea where anything in the community was. Where should I go for lumber. What were the good hardware stores, etc. It took me several months to figure out all of that. I have no real idea if what I found was better or worse than what my predecessor had used. When I left, I wrote a letter to my successor to let him know as much information as I could about the town, where to get supplies, etc. 30+ years later we had a discussion where he remembered me and the information that I had left him and was appreciative.



My wife is moving to retirement. Before she went part time, she was head of radiology at Harborview Hospital in Seattle. She had been there for over 30 years and has huge institutional knowledge. Her way of moving on gracefully was to help choose her replacement, but then hang around for several months so the replacement could ask her advice and ideas as needed. After that she took three months off and things settled down.



I was the resident lighting designer for a theatre in Tacoma Washington doing six musicals a year. Two years ago I started a practice of living away from Seattle for 4 months or so a year. The theatre found another designer for two shows, and I attempted to show him how things worked. When I came back things were a mess and it took quite a while to get stuff working properly again. The next year the theatre used someone who had a better idea of how things worked ( she had been involved with the company for a number of years ) and things were better, but not great. Before COVID, the theatre was considering hiring a part time local to deal with handling the maintenance, organization, etc of the lighting systems. IE they realized there was an issue with maintenance, etc and had a plan to fix it. ( all of course on hold for now)
 
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Lynnchesque

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Feb 28, 2019
Location
Fresno, CA
I think I have sort of a counter-narrative...

I went to a performing arts high school, with a huge, beautiful auditorium. Mr. A, the auditorium manager, taught me more practical knowledge than in any class I took. Really the foundation for all the work I've done. He gave me one of my first jobs, as paid crew when we had outside shows. I learned on a huge midas soundboard and an expression 2. Mid way through my time there, there was a large remodel that included a full pit elevator and electrical infrastructure.

About a decade later I returned, as a designer with a different school renting the space. I was shocked to see how the space had decayed. It was a dusty mess. Mr. A had retired a few years before, and it became clear that his young, very nice, replacement was not up to the task. The guy had a theatre degree, and even more, had been a student at the high school as well, and worked with Mr. A. But I kept running into issues... He had no idea where data lines were running, and was fuzzy on the basic concepts of dmx. They had bought a few small moving lights, but they were sitting disconnected because "Mr. A took his moving light board when he left." When asked where the panel was to tie in to power, no idea. Worse, what knowledge that had been passed on, was the worst kind. When hanging lights, I noticed a complete lack of safety cables, "Oh, Mr. A never used those, so we don't". When asked about climbing up to load weight, "Mr. A never went up there, so we don't".

I think Mr. A had grown tired at the end of his career, and it seemed as if that attitude had been passed on to the next generation. What should have been bright new talent come in to restore the place, wound up only continuing a pattern of apathy. But really, the story is about institutional decay. The cyc had been torn at some point (due to someones mistake), but there was no money to replace it. The light board that was there before I went to highschool, is still there being used. Same for the sound board, even though few of its channels remain usable. Only one of the super trouper spots works anymore. An entire balcony section has been taped off, because there is a leak in the roof and nothing has been done to fix it. Faced with all of these problems, and finding no support from administration to solve them, I might give up too.

This is unfortunately a common story in my town. The city has these venues but refuses to take care of them. Maintenance is deferred until the space is unusable, then the city tries to sell them off.. but no one wants to buy, as no one wants to put in the millions of dollars required to restore them. Mr. A's replacement decided to move on, and the job opened up again. I actually applied, but was suspicious when the job description centered around janitorial duties, with very little detail of what I knew to be the specialty skills massively needed to actually take care of the place. I never got an interview. I later heard that the job was given to a school-district administrator's child, someone with no theatrical experience.
 
My story is one in which the institutional knowledge gap was huge, and was created by a very odd circumstance.

Long ago, I attended a brand new high school. The older school that my class would have gone to had a 40+ year old Thespian club, a drama teacher who had been there many years, and a tradition of being a local performing arts center where outside local organizations could use the venue without a lot of expense, with crew provided by the high school thespian club and drama teacher. The new school had none of this.

In the timespan of about 9 months, a new school system was created by removing about 5 square miles of suburban area from the previous, massive county school district. The new school system had 3 elementary (1-6) schools, one junior high (7-9), but no high school. In 1.5 years a new high school was built, with no drama teacher, no one in administration with any kind of technical theatre knowledge, and only two faculty on hand who had a little knowledge of production work (a band director, and an assistant choir director who had both been a part of a local community theatre group). But, the high school had a brand new 900 seat theatre, with a brand new lighting system, no fly system, and a standing policy to let outside community groups use it for anything from dance recitals to the city's civic opera company's performances. For the first few months in the new building, band and choir performances, pep rallies, convocations, guest speakers, and commencement ceremonies constituted the school-run activities.

Two weeks before the opening event in the theatre, a stage crew service club was thrown together from about 12 volunteer students, originally under the new (right out of college) band director's oversight. His community theatre experience was as an orchestra conductor for popular musicals like Guys and Dolls, and A Little Night Music. But he had no technical theatre knowledge about lighting or sound systems other than having seen them used by the paid hands at the local community theatre.

The new lighting instruments for the new theatre were not delivered until a couple of months after the opening, which meant that for the first few months, instruments, cables and twofers were borrowed from other local theatres, which had a variety of connectors, but only a handful of adaptors. The installed Altec Lansing sound system had a patch bay with no patch cables, although the "through" connections allowed hand held mics and a turntable to work. The six channel mixer was backstage, next to the grand drape. The turntable and main amp were both in the booth in back of the auditorium. There was a single Voice of the Theatre monaural speaker cluster in the ceiling at the proscenium.

There was and 45+ years later still is no fly system in that theatre.

Like I said, for the first couple of events (a Christmas Concert prior to the building's opening, and an opening convocation) the borrowed lighting instruments were used. Changing connectors on the instruments that had twist-locks was a p.i.t.a., and some of the newer instruments with a ground wire The stage crew that I was a part of figured out everything from scratch. We did have the benefit of some really basic knowledge about hanging lights that someone had picked up from an older brother --you tighten the clamp with a wrench or PLIERS!, and put color filters in the metal frames that slide into the front of the lights--which prompted us to discover which part was the top of the light, and oh yea, the instrument was pointed towards the stage. We had no ladders that would reach the lights over the stage, and the two electrics were on extremely under-rated winches that both catastrophically failed within the first 12 months that the place was open.

The lighting system was from a new company that I think was called Da-Core and was actually state-of-the-art dimmer per circuit design. However, the dimmer modules were not easily user-serviceable, and had a pretty high failure rate. They lacked the silver sand fuses that other SCR dimmers used for protecting the SCRs from high current, and the giant chokes and heavily over-engineered approach that Kliegl had. The control board was a 24 channel two scene preset, with a mini-slider patch that routed control channels signals to dimmers, instead of dimmer outputs to circuits. It was an innovative design for its day.

Looking back, I'm surprised that a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds figured out how to get these things to all work without actually killing someone. Although there was one fellow named Jim who discovered the hard way that the handle would slip off of the winches that held up the electrics (his forearm caught the handle on the next revolution, which was really bad), and that the audio mixer had some live circuitry even when the switch was off. He went on to become an electrical engineer, so maybe these close calls actually lead to something. I'm glad that he survived the close calls, partly because without his sacrifice, it could have been me making these discoveries instead of him!

The theatre was a pretty good example of low-bid/bad spec/unqualified installers kind of things going wrong on a new building, as well as poor supervision!
 

macsound

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Jun 15, 2018
Location
San Francisco, CA
Realized another small anecdote. At my office, there's been an Electrician who gets about 60% of his work from my company in my building for the past 14 years, ever since they've occupied the space. It's 3 buildings, for a total of about 500 people with large retail "mock stores" with their fair share of track lighting and other design studios with their share of florescent lighting.
Since he and his team do take other jobs, he's not always around and they have to hire someone else.
In my office area there were 3 banks of florescent lights that had been disconnected for many many years because track lighting was installed, but they physically continued beyond a half wall to another part of the office where they were working about 50%.

Finally someone decided they wanted to get the fluorescents working again and the "regular" electrician was busy. This new electrician came in and inspected the 50% working half, discovered a couple ballasts needed replacement and mostly tubes. They got to my area and decided all the ballasts needed replacement. They proceeded to replace the 50% area and got it to about 90% when the regular electrician came in for an earlier scheduled work order.
He poked his head in, asking maintenance what was up with these lights. He heard the story about the flourescents in my work area not working. His response was "yea I disconnected them years ago at employee X's request". He went into the closet, removed a box cover, wired together a wire with a wire-nut and my area lit up.
 

Lasermike

Member
Joined
Jan 9, 2019
Location
Des Moines, Wa
In a similar vein to macsound's story about lights, I was by myself on night shift due to the rest of the crew calling in. My supervisor decided to stick around to be a second body if I needed help. She got bored and snagged a boom lift trained guy from production to fix some lights in small pack. About an hour later, I get a call asking if I had any advice on getting the fluorescent lights working again, they'd replaced a bunch of lamps and were thinking they needed ballasts. I asked if they were on. Radio silence for a while. Then I hear the boom lift driving past the shop.
 

Ben Stiegler

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Joined
Aug 3, 2017
Location
Sf Bay Area
I've 39 years at my facility. I designed and supervised the install (mostly) on all 5 theatrical lighting systems. I know the older half of the facilities electrical distribution better then the college electrician ever will (he's a good guy, but swamped). I'm the go-to person when they need to add/modify anything as I've been there and involved on pretty much everything in my time span.

When I leave there is zero possibility they will bring in my replacement early to learn anything about the systems. My tenured position is actually going to Local One IATSE, will probably not be a permanent position. If they are lucky there's one person who knows a lot about the systems and they will hire him. If too friggin bad. if they don't. I'm available as a consultant for $125 per hr., 4 hr. minimum.

As a story about the importance of maintaining continuity. About 80% of the 350 ETC S4 fixtures in use in our road house, plus our Ion console, are provided to us as a loan from the City of NY Dept. of Cultural Affairs. As part of that ongoing loan, we have to certify yearly they are in use in the facility, being maintained, etc... That certification letter used to go to our PAC GM, who would complete it and return and who retired in Nov. 2018. Nobody replaced him so nobody was checking the mail. The DCA got alarmed, had their lawyer contact the City University lawyers, who contacted the college, who replied with "Oh, that theaters been closed for renovation for 2 years, we don't know when it will re-open". Which was a clear violation of the terms that thus gear is supposed to be in some form of continual use. We are awaiting a decision as to whether we will be going in to collect all 200+ units plus a console to be returned to the city. That leaves only FOH gear at the theater.
there's an idiot under almost every rock these days ...