This recent comic from one of my favorite webcomics, xkcd, reminded me of one of the often-present members of a support team: the Information Horder.
Often times a client has a “favorite” support staff with whom they like to deal (who often is the most knowledgeable or has been in the team for the longest, but not necessarily so). Some support staff like the status (and job safety) this affords, while others just enjoy the opportunity to give personalized service.
At least in the case of the latter, this is an argument in favor of giving out direct numbers for multiple support staff, and letting the client decide to whom they would like to speak. A follow-up summary email to the rest of the team in the name of sharing of information means that this has been a reasonable way, if not the defacto standard, for providing support, especially in the context of Asia and it’s already-thin support model which provides a nurturing environment for a potential team destroyer, the Information Horder.
Of course the obvious criticisms are:
- What happens when the Information Horder takes a holiday? Or steps away to the bathroom or for a smoke? Or leaves the firm?
- If the benefits to the support staff of sharing the knowledge are not made clear there can be a tendency to horde information, giving the real or perceived impression that the Information Horder is irreplaceable, or at worst case allowing them to leverage their position in order to make unreasonable demands on salary etc.
In the case of the former, these days most securities companies have an official policy of requiring employees to take two weeks continuous leave from the office per year. I can’t speak for other regions, but Japan at least has a complimentary law, stating that in principle an employee can take annual leave whenever they like to the extent of their accumulated annual leave, provided the company doesn’t have a good case to deny them (and the precedent in Japan is that “only one person had all the information” would not give the company a case to deny the request).
If you’re managing a support team it is in your best interests to make sure people can take leave.
If you’re the Information Horder in the support team, either you share the information and make sure everyone else can do your job or never complain about not being able to take vacation.
The Information Horder rears its head more often than I’d like to admit. Invariably companies find a way to replace these “irreplaceable” people. For some reason I have found a tendency for locals in Asian countries to be particularly protective of their information, but I have found that it is usually because no-one has ever explained to them properly the benefits to them of sharing the information.
To the Information Horders I say this: Apart from the fact that you can never take a vacation and are probably considered a thorn in the side of management, if you are irreplaceable you also can never be given a promotion. This may be fine and dandy now while you are being overpaid due to your outrageous salary demands, but as I will write about later there is an “age limit” for support staff as well, which one day you too will be faced with.
(This information is for your own benefit – I’m obviously in favor of higher salaries for us under-valued support staff :P)
I’ll finish up with a quick story of a male friend of mine who shall remain nameless and how they dealt with a female Information Horder in his team.
Having been in the team for several years she was notorious for not sharing her knowledge, and had a foul mouth and bad attitude to boot. She kept all her knowledge in a notebook, complete with screenshots and detailed instructions for tens, if not hundreds of support issues that had arisen throughout her reign. The notebook was safely locked away in her top drawer every evening.
Of course, when it came to dealing with “her” clients she was like a sweet-smelling rose (complete with thorny comments about her incompetent team members).
This guy realized the Information Horder was pulling the team apart. In the first six months since he joined he had seen two members of the team quit, one indirectly and one directly related to her being in the team. The team had a bad feeling, and everyone knew what was going on, but no-one knew how to challenge it. If it came down to her or someone else quitting, she had all the knowledge so the challenger would probably be forced to quit.
Our protagonist was gaining experience every day, and it was when he was working on one particularly taxing issue that he noticed a trait which you often find with Information Horders – she was lazy. Because she could answer 99% of support inquiries with the help of her notebook, and had the experience to know to avoid the other 1% (including this difficult issue), she spent a lot of her time watching movies, surfing gourmet restaurant webpages and sending Bloombergs to her boyfriend.
He figured that while his rate of gaining knowledge was faster than hers, it would still be another six hard months before he would be anywhere near her current level of knowledge. Also, there was another problem – one more person in the team who he had been grooming as an underling had just put in his resignation. He was unable to see the vision of what the team could become. Worse still, his resignation reinforced the team’s reliance on the Information Horder.
He needed something else. A secret weapon.
He knew he had to get her notebook and all its delicious information. But how? Then one day opportunity presented itself.
The Information Horder had been stuck on a support issue which had taken her half an hour into overtime. She growled at the team and made some comment about how hopeless everyone was before stomping off for the day, forgetting to lock the top drawer which contained her precious notebook.
Seizing the opportunity, our protagonist took the notebook and photocopied the entire thing, front to back, then returned it to the top drawer. He worked hard after she had left each day, reproducing each support case detailed in her notebook and uploading it to a secret wiki site.
She never found out that her notebook had been “borrowed,” but she certainly did notice the skill level of our protagonist approaching hers at an astonishing rate. He was now confidently dealing with most support issues, as well as training newer team members.
Her laziness had been her weak-point the whole time, and it was a habit which was too hard to break at this stage. She hadn’t even noticed that clients who once respected her, realizing that there were other competent members on the team (and they come without the attitude) now no longer listened to her venomous criticisms of her team members.
Also, her laziness meant she was out of touch with the latest changes to the application. She was struggling with one issue at one stage. When our protagonist offered to assist she threw it back in his face.
That evening he hand-wrote a note to the manager of the team. “You can fire her” and included a link to the secret wiki.
Within a week she had received her marching orders, and the information from the wiki was transferred to the company intranet. The team went on to prosper, and the Information Horder and her reign of terror was all but forgotten in the months which followed, save the above story which is still occasionally regaled over beers in bars across Tokyo by the protagonist, now leader of the team.