Imagine that you are traveling through an ancient and musty labyrinth full of twists and turns and dead ends. You would probably get lost in there forever, except, thankfully, you have an experienced guide who knows the best paths to take and the fastest route through the maze.
With their help you make it to the end of the labyrinth and find what you were looking for.
Now imagine what would happen if you entered that same maze again a month later, but instead of finding your faithful guide waiting there to lead you through you find... no one.
Could you find your way through the maze? Maybe. But it would most likely take you a much longer time, you’d hit a few dead ends, and probably end up with a splitting headache.
You’d definitely be thinking “there’s got to be an easier way than this”.
Although that situation sounds like pure fantasy, many businesses have set themselves up for the same kind of pain and inefficiency because they haven't paid proper attention to how they manage their environmental data.
The Gatekeeper Effect
In order to keep up with their EH&S needs, many business are building labyrinths of their own. Environmental data labyrinths, like a complex series of spreadsheets or an in-house developed environmental software program.
Sometimes these environmental data management systems can work really well if you know how to use them. You might even use yours for several years, transforming them into an essential part of your business.
Your environmental manager might become a pro at using your legacy system and be able to navigate it with ease. What looks like a jumble of spreadsheets makes perfect sense to her, and she always seems to be able to produce your environmental compliance reports on time.
No problem then, right?
This type of environmental data management encourages EH&S managers to become gatekeepers, the only person capable of understanding how your system works or retrieving data. No one else can get anything done without their help.
And the problem with gatekeepers is that sometimes they can disappear. Get sick. Retire. Change jobs. And then you are left trying to find your way through your own data management system and finding yourself lost.
Your entire legacy system, which worked wonders at first, grew and grew into an enormous labyrinth that is now your worst enemy.
Replacing a Gatekeeper
There is no more difficult position for an EH&S manager to be in than filling the shoes of a vanished gatekeeper. All the roles and responsibilities are the same, but the tools that made those tasks possible are no longer working.
No matter how skilled or experienced your new EH&S specialist is, they are starting off at a disadvantage and need to learn to a whole new way of doing things. It puts the entire business’ environmental compliance at risk and grinds projects to a halt.
After a few years of learning, eventually they might find their way through the maze of spreadsheets and learn how to get through the legacy system labyrinth. But all you’ve done is replaced one gatekeeper with another! In a few years time your business will be back to square one and you’ll have to start the whole process over again.
Preventing the Gatekeeper Effect
The only way to get out of that cycle is to prevent your EH&S manager from becoming a gatekeeper in the first place. And that requires an environmental data management system that is resistant to having just one person being the expert and knowing how things work.
One of the best ways is to make sure your EH&S manager isn’t the only person responsible for building your environmental data management system. The most common cause of the gatekeeper effect is relying on one person to build all of your environmental management spreadsheets and formulas.
It’s far better to use a more standardized system that is well documented and transparent. Try having your environmental manager create templates that outline what data and calculations need to get used, but are clear enough for any EH&S staff to understand. Your environmental expert can spend time authenticating template-driven results instead of spending time collecting and entering data.
Some businesses are turning to environmental management software (EMS) to help in these situations. A word of caution: in-house developed software can become just as difficult for newcomers to use if it was designed with only the guidance of one EH&S professional. The emphasis should be on sharing responsibilities and making the software do the specialized labor.
If you decide to use a third party EMS, make sure that it comes with technical support and is backed up by real environmental specialists – not just software developers - who can help you during times of transition. Finding the right match is essential.
About the Author: Alex Chamberlain is a writer and blogger who regularly contributes to ERA Environmental Management Solutions' blog. You can find Alex on Google+, LinkedIn & ERA's Environmental Compliance Blog
Image credit: Tim Green