Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Session Report: Keeping Institutional Memory (Part 2) by Yvonne Davidsson

Session: Keeping Institutional Memory (Part 2)
Peer Assistee: Yvonne Davidsson
Room: Flag Hall, 21 Jan 2009

Based on the following abstract, this peer-assist session was opened for participants to share experiences and opinions, and propose practical advice on how to overcome this common problem in FAO. As per comments made by participants from other UN agencies, this issue seems to be a widespread dilemma. Some 25 staff from FAO, IFAD and CGIAR participated.

The fact that retired staff are taken back on as consultants as opposed to the hiring of new, young consultants, is always a cause of concern for many staff members. This is of course an easy way to get expert staff already knowing the system, well-connected, but above all, it is a natural way to go, as they indeed have very valuable experience as well as an extensive institutional memory.

In order to keep these experts and their vast experience, but at the same time not lose their experience the day they permanently retire, this proposal outlines a win-win-win situation for a) the retired expert; b) the Organization; and c) recent graduates in the same field of work. Practically it means that we should establish a very close collaboration with universities in the fisheries sector and their recent graduates. For each contract offered to an expert retiree, a recent graduate in that field of work should be identified in order for them to gain “the experience of the experienced” and in this way also make sure that the institutional memory is passed on to younger generations.

The whole process could be through the FAO web site, where a special “meeting point” web page for retirees and registered recent graduates could be created. Recent graduates of selected universities should have to register and include their CV with their preferred field of work and all other relevant data and the retired experts should also introduce themselves here. Hence, when an expert retiree is offered a contract and before s/he is accepting the contract, s/he should identify a suitable student by contacting them directly based on their CV, or post a message asking for interested co-workers. There should also be a feedback forum, where both retirees and students on completion of their joint work should share their experiences gained and lessons learned. This would subsequently mean that little by little, a “share-experience” database would be built. The honorarium part for both expert retiree and graduate would have to be developed and measured under current FAO regulations, but should not represent a major extra-expenditure considering the potential gain in the long run.

Results of the Discussion

Based on the discussions, the group was asked to provide proposals and comments on where to go next in order to tackle this issue. Their points included and are summarized as follows:
  • A strong policy from the Organization should be issued on transfer of the institutional memory.
  • It was noted that timely vacancy announcements would facilitate face-to-face handover and overlapping.
  • Under this policy, and to the extent possible, the Organization should improve succession planning with a clear, direct handover process and oversee the exit process of staff.
  • A Mentoring programme of younger/new staff, regardless of grade or category, not only within departments or divisions, but also across departmental boundaries should be established.
  • Small groups of staff should have weekly meetings in order to keep colleagues updated on work issues.
  • Piggy-backing on similar efforts and/or consult with other UN agencies or other organizations should be pursued.
  • Include a clause in the retirees’ consultant contract that mentoring should be part of his/her duties.
  • Use the Culture Change team as a vehicle to promote and establish mentoring practises.
  • Thoroughly check the Independent External Evaluation Report and whether this issue is highlighted.
  • Train staff in knowledge management and internal communication.
  • Consider investing in an increased number of lower grade professional positions so that outgoing staff members or retirees could train/mentor staff members and in this way guarantee retention of this knowledge in the Organization.
  • Under this policy, and to the extent possible, the Organization should improve succession planning with a clear, direct handover process and oversee the exit process of staff.
  • This proposal would ideally also reach out to universities in developing countries and their recent graduates, in particular in connection with project work in these countries.
It was commonly agreed that for changes to materialize, senior management must accept and take measures for implementing them. With that in mind, as well as the fact that this was whole exercise originated from the culture change efforts, it was agreed that as a first step, a summary of this session would be forwarded to the Culture Change Team at FAO for their action as appropriate.

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