• David Verhaag

Knowledge Management and Painting the Kitchen

Before I joined SuccessFactors in 2004, I was unemployed. My role as a Regional Human Resources Director had been made redundant by an acquisition. I had been out of a job for more than six months, and my severance and unemployment had run out. The situation was bleak, and my emotional state matched.

I was fortunate to have a great landlord who helped me find enough odd jobs to pay the rent. I desperately wanted to stay in Cambridge and not return home to Spokane with my tail between my legs, so that was no small thing. One of the jobs that my landlord often found for me was painting. I painted fences, porches, apartments, sailboat hulls, radiators, just about anything. I hated it! I. HATED. IT!

It was such a personal disappointment to spend my days sanding, patching, and painting. There was never a day when I wasn’t grateful for the few dollars I would earn, but it was hard, dirty, backbreaking work. Worse, at the time, I honestly believed it was beneath me.

I made it through some dark months painting and was lucky enough to talk with Margie Pomerantz and Mark Bissell, who ultimately hired me at SuccessFactors. It was a life-changing job. Not only did I not have to paint anymore, but I was applying everything that I had learned in human resources while learning technology and software as a service.

This weekend, sixteen years later, I found myself painting. I found myself filling holes in drywall, sanding, and breathing in the dust, and painting the kitchen in my little mountain cabin. This time, I didn’t mind so much.

It’s easier to work for yourself, of course. But it was striking to me how the work itself is the same. It’s still hard, dirty, and physically exhausting. I still spill paint, get paint in my hair, and curse the spots that appear after I think I am done. The only thing that has really changed is my attitude.

Time and experience have ground me down. I am no longer as arrogant as I was early in my career. But it’s more than that.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the experience and the hard-earned skill of tradespeople. I no longer look down on the work. Instead, I marvel at the mastery and knowledge so many of these individuals have. I wonder how many years they put in carrying ladders and paint cans before they could smooth a patch of drywall, so you didn’t notice the bumps.

At Olifano, I think a lot about productivity and efficiency. Our focus is on knowledge workers. How can we help everyone do their best work by putting resources where they need them? How can we reduce the time it takes for someone to know what content the most experienced employees use and get value from? We obsess about shortcuts.

In the skilled trades, there are no shortcuts. Even the best tools in the hands of newbies often produce bad results. The most expensive saw in the hands of someone who hasn’t learned to measure twice will cut the drywall short. Reading about it or watching “This Old House” doesn’t earn the skill. It’s only with time, experience, and often mentorship that these individuals come to master their field.

After a weekend of painting, I am happy (and relieved) to sit down and think about knowledge management, learning in the flow of work, and all of the other fun topics I get to work on as the Founder of Olifano.

I am also profoundly grateful for all of the skilled tradespeople in the world. I am thankful for the time and effort they put into learning their trades.

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