Snow Day

Large snowflakes are falling steadily outside my window, temporarily veiling the urban landscape. We heard breathless warnings this morning on the radio and TV of impending commuting disasters. We’ve been asked to stay home, but if we must travel, please use public transportation. New York City was winding up for one of those rare (but highly enjoyable) occurrences — a bona fide snow day that doesn’t fall on the weekend.

In the midst of all of this excitement are two interesting knowledge management lessons:

1. Garbage Trucks: In most normal towns, garbage trucks collect the garbage. And in New York City, that is usually the case. However, as soon as the snow starts to fall, garbage trucks here morph into snowplows. While they may look strange, they are effective. They are also good reminders of a basic knowledge management lesson: sometimes the easiest way to create excellent content is to repurpose existing materials. For example, organizations that have good communications between their training function and their knowledge management function have discovered that training materials are a rich source of actionable knowledge. Once added to the knowledge management system, they become more widely accessible and more widely used. This is a win-win for the trainers and the knowledge managers. Above all, it is a win for the knowledge workers who need this information. Similarly, materials created for marketing purposes can become valuable content in the KM system and vice versa.

2. Going to School on a Snow Day: One of the great joys of childhood is waking up to learn school has been canceled because of a snowstorm. The kids are oblivious to the agony of the school administrator, who must make a decision before dawn as to whether or not to cancel school. If there is an enormous snowfall and the administrator made the decision to cancel, the administrator is a hero. If school is canceled and the forecasted blizzard ends up being a light flurry, the administrator is vilified. In New York City, we sidestepped the agony by adopting what seemed to be a reasonable approach: if the city’s board of education decides to cancel school, then all schools (public, private, parochial, etc.) will be canceled. This takes the individual principals out of the decision making and puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of a faceless bureaucracy. Who could argue with that???

Since NYC has relatively few snow days, this scheme rarely gets put to the test. However, it has begun to irk some kids that in recent years the only decent storms seem to occur on weekends or during the February school break. It is particularly annoying for kids whose schools do not follow the public school calendar. In their case, even if you have a legitimate snow day that falls on a public school holiday, the board of education won’t go to the trouble of canceling school since the public schools aren’t in session. So these kids are deprived of the benefits of a snow day.

I recite these facts not to incite sympathy for this small, disaffected subset of NYC school children, but rather, to point to a little business process challenge. Arguably the NYC approach to snow days works most of the time by default since we almost never have large snowstorms and when they do happen they seem to fall on days when public schools are not in session. So when do you know you have a valid, reliable business process as opposed to a lucky way of doing things? Admittedly, the decision making that leads to declaring a snow day probably doesn’t rise to the level of a proper business process as envisioned by Frederick Taylor and others who studied manufacturing processes. Nonetheless, the question is worth posing with respect to the many practices organizations adopt over time. Followers of the “if ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of management, won’t understand the question. But that’s fine. Let them leave money on the table for the rest of us. In my knowledge management work I’ve discovered time and time again that by simply taking a closer look at how an organization goes through its routines we inevitably find ways of improving and adding value. Granted, not every change is a blockbuster, but that may be all to the good given the human tendency to resist change.

(Just to add insult to injury, not only do some kids have to go to school today, but they will also be missing the City Parks Department’s celebration of the First Snow Day of the Year. The Department will be providing sleds and hot chocolate in some city parks from noon- 4pm. Too bad about those afternoon classes!)

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