Posted April 27, 2009on:
As large numbers of baby boomers approach retirement age, many employers are worried about the impact of losing so many experienced people at once. When individuals leave an organization, taking with them repositories of important technical or institutional knowledge, their departure can seriously hamper an organization’
s ability to function effectively.
In many organizations, sophisticated knowledge management systems have been installed to capture information. Unfortunately, some of the most important knowledge resists codification in databases. It is the tacit knowledge – expertise gained through experience – that is most at risk when employees leave.
Some organizations have anticipated the situation and developed a number of successful strategies, starting with identifying key knowledge holders who may be at risk of leaving and planning how their intellectual capital will be retained. Procter & Gamble, for example, has a formal process in each business unit for not only identifying key knowledge holders, but specifying what knowledge needs to be transferred and the steps necessary to do so.
Key knowledge holders are those at the center of information networks, those with contacts in many areas within the organization and outside it, who others in the organization go to for help, who are repositories of institutional memory, or those with unique jobs or skill sets. Talent managers will need to decide who should receive the knowledge. It might be a direct successor to the person leaving. Or it might be someone in a position to disseminate the knowledge more broadly.
Staffing strategies delay the inevitable by keeping the talent in the organization a little longer. Procter & Gamble’s Your Encore program is a well-known and particularly effective example. The program allows retirees from companies that belong to the Your Encore consortium to work on temporary assignment in any of the other member companies.
Other companies use staffing variations, including phased retirements, that allow employees to scale down their hours rather than retire completely. Scientist emeritus programs give retired scientists access to equipment and other support so they can continue their research on a paid or unpaid basis. Apprenticeship strategies capture knowledge before people leave and sometimes keep employees on a little longer.
Agricultural company Monsanto has developed one of the most comprehensive of this sort. Through its STEP program, individuals eligible for retirement who possess critical knowledge and hold key or unique jobs are selected to pair with identified successors. The pair goes through a defined process to develop a knowledge transfer plan, teach and learn, gradually handling over responsibility for delivering results in the role, and sharing the knowledge with others on the team.
Educational strategies also allow knowledge to be transmitted to a broader group. Some companies have gotten quite creative at making these sessions fun and interesting. They might set it up like a television interview or radio call-in show or combine them with action learning elements in which people work on a real or simulated problem, and the expert acts as a resource and critiques the outcomes. Sometimes it’s helpful to pair the expert with a skilled facilitator.
Some companies facing large-scale loss of senior managerial personnel have implemented accelerated development programs for future leaders. Sandia National Laboratory in California, for example, created GeNext to deliver powerful experiential learning to managers with less than five years’ experience, to help them build their informal networks across the organization and “get to the heart” of what leadership in the organization requires.
Ideally, knowledge transfer is not a discrete event when someone leaves; it happens among everyone, all the time. That takes a major culture shift in many organizations. But it is critical to sustain high-performing organizations.