What’s your "Bus Factor"?

I was sitting with a group of association executives last week discussing their current data management situation. In the course of the discussion, the executive director pointed out that for almost all of their data management systems, there is only one person on staff that knows how to use these systems. When she is out of the office, everything data-related comes to a standstill until she returns. As the executive director put it, “If she gets hit by a beer truck, we’re in big trouble!”

I often refer to this as the “hit by a bus” problem. That is, if a given staff person gets hit by a bus and can’t come to work (or decides to go to Tahiti, if you prefer a more pleasant image), can other staff pick up and do that person’s job, or will that work have to be relearned and/or restarted? This is the person’s “bus factor”: how much their absence would adversely affect the operations of the organization. The greater the risk of their missing, the higher their bus factor.

When it comes to data management, this is particularly important. Look around your organization. Consider each staff person who touches the data. What is the bus factor for each? Do you have too much knowledge invested in a single person, or is the knowledge spread broadly among several staff? Do you have good documentation in place to support staff?

How to lower the bus factor

Once you’ve determined the bus factor for your staff, what can you do to lower the risk of those with a high bus factor? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Those with higher bus factors should document all of the processes they currently manage in the database. These documents should include step-by-step procedures for how data is processed through the system. Click here to see more detail on how documentation should be managed.
  2. After identifying all the processes that this staff person manages, redistribute responsibility for some of those tasks to other staff within the organization. (Obviously this is limited to the number of staff you have; if you have very limited staff, documentation becomes absolutely critical.)
  3. Make sure you have a solid relationship with your technology vendors, especially your AMS vendor (See here for more on how to strengthen your relationship with your vendor). Your vendor can serve as your “backstop” if key staff with a high bus factor suddenly leave.

You have control over how high a given staff person’s bus factor becomes. Good documentation, good relationships with your vendors, and spreading the work out among multiple staff are all ways to keep the bus factor low, and to ensure that an errant bus doesn’t create a crisis at your organization.

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