Three ways to make sure knowledge stays in your group

I had a shocking experience recently. Within a week, my three PhD students all told me that they were thinking of leaving the group and going elsewhere when they’re done. Who’s going to do their work? And how??

When you started your group, things probably developed somewhat “naturally”. Without really planning for it, your group develops “a way we do things around here”.

Your group members know things you don’t

In my group, each PhD student has specialized beyond my own expertise. This means, they know more than I do. At least about the specific methods they are applying in our current experiments. In the beginning, I tried to keep up and learn with them. This started with technical things; for example, we use motion trackers to monitor movements of human participants. With my last grant, I had bought a new brand. Besides having to figure out the complicated setup, we had to re-write our Matlab code to control online measurements and data transfer. Today, I wouldn’t be able to run an experiment without the help of my PhDs.

But their knowledge monopoly doesn’t end with technical things. It continues with expertise about data analysis, experience in how data should look so that they are usable, and many other aspects of everyday scientific work.

So, when my three PhDs leave… well, I really don’t want to finish this sentence.

Document what your group is doing

People turn-over is high in science, with our short-term contracts on third-party funding, so my PhD disappearance problem is definitely not a one-time mishap. So, how can I retain the knowledge in my group? How can I make sure I consistently get similar quality in all the work done in my lab?

The answer is threefold: workflows, instructions, and templates. All three are types of documentation. Will you be surprised when I mention that I got these ideas reading business books?

Workflows

A workflow is a series of steps that have to be taken to complete some task. You can think big and small.

For a big example, in my group we’ve created a workflow for running an experiment. It has all the steps that need to be done from creating a standard folder structure; Evernote documentation folders; documentation of idea, goals, computer code; instructions about what steps must be discussed with me or in the group; …

For a small example, we have a workflow for giving a contract to a new student assistant.

So I can see you thinking: running an experiment? I don’t need written instructions for that! But have you ever tried to find a file in the idiosyncratic folder structure one of your PhDs came up with, because there weren’t defined places of where specific files should go? Have you ever forgotten to check the experimental setup before your master student started acquiring data, only to find later that there was a cardinal mistake in the setup?

Multiply these “accidents” by 10 when you have a new lab member. Multiply by 100 when your team changes completely.

And have I mentioned how much time you save when you don’t have to explain everything to the new guy yourself, but he can go to a document and only return to you with a couple of things he didn’t understand?

Instructions/lists

Document how things are done. For the new motion tracker I mentioned, my PhDs created detailed instructions about how to set it up. You can use photos, mark things on them, and make detailed lists. Seriously: the more detailed the instructions, the less will go wrong the next time someone new has to do it the first time.

Write lists for things that need to be done regularly. For example, we have a list of what all needs to be done when we clean the lab.

Templates

These are masks that you can use over and over. You can use templates in quite a few situations.

If you have to contact a lot of people, such as to recruit them for experiments, you can have email templates.

We have a set of templates for the consent forms our participants must sign before they can take part in our experiments. Every time someone starts a new experiment, all they have to do is get the doc and adjust a few lines.

There are ethical guidelines about what all you have to tell your participants when you instruct them for experiments. We have a template so that no one forgets any of the required info.

I’m sure you can think of more.

Nice. But we don’t have time for this.

My group didn’t love me for it when I introduced workflows and instructions. It’s extra work.

We were lucky, because we had documented here and there already in Evernote. Those documents weren’t always complete and up to date. But we could use them as a start.

Your documentation will build over time. You don’t have to do it over night – unless you wait too long, until your PhDs have one foot out the door. So start now – the earlier, the better. If you are starting a new group, ask your group members to create re-usable workflows from the beginning, and then use them the next time they do the same task. Then they can revise and optimize them continuously with little extra effort.

Making it a priority to document all your lab’s best practices in is central to retaining knowledge in your group.

Does your group document workflows, instructions, and templates? If not, then why? What other things do you document? Use the comments section to let us know!

Resources

Michael Gerber takes documentation to the extreme in his book, The E-Myth Revisited. His point is that the more everything is standardized by documentation, the easier it is to scale, that is, have someone do the same thing again elsewhere, because you don’t have to be there yourself to make it happen. The classic example is a franchise. Every McDonald’s is the same. Obviously, not really what we want in research. But it’s worth looking at what all you can at least consider to document and standardize.

Michael Hyatt suggests using email signatures to create templates for replies you repeat often. Instead, you can use tools like TextExpander that paste arbitrarily long and complex text when you type a shortcut.

This article in PC Magazine has a long list of tips about how to write good workflows.

A picture is worth 1,000 words. If you need to document a lot of stuff on-screen, then Skitch might help; it integrates with Evernote. But there are plenty of other solutions, such as Clarify-it and Jing.

There are some fancy (but rather pricey) online tools to create pretty workflows. But a txt file, Word doc, or my favorite, Evernote, will do.

 


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].