Today’s aging workforce puts businesses at risk when employees retire (or leave for any reason) and their unique knowledge is lost from a company. How is a business to go about retaining that aging worker's knowledge before it’s too late? Here is a recent case from a Fortune 500 client that illustrates the problem and solution in brief:
This last week my team started a project with a major food products company. They have two scientists in their R & D team who’ve spent the bulk of their career synthesizing lipids. In layman’s terms, that means they are working on inventing and/or improving the next fat that can be used in the preparation of crackers, chips, biscuits, cookies, etc. Trans fats are out. There has been some success with synthetic fats but the Holy Grail is still out there: a low calorie, stable shelf life, nutritionally-sound fat with a high smoke point. These men are the team with the most experience on the topic—and they are just about ready to retire. Three successors have been identified. These replacements are smart, experienced in the company, and capable—and yet, to be blunt, they don’t even know what they don’t know about synthesizing lipids. The head of their research team invited us in to help develop a plan for transferring years of knowledge and work products into the heads and hands of the next generation.
If you’ve been following this blog for any period of time you know that the aging worker issue is both a workforce risk and a huge opportunity for strategic knowledge transfer. More than half of our clients are struggling to transfer unique knowledge from their aging science and engineering populations in advance of an expected tsunami of retirements. Every day that the economy improves the nail biting gets worse. My clients routinely tell me around 30% – 40% of these science and engineering teams are or will be ready to retire in the next few years and, while they’ve put off retirement because of a poor economy, they won’t be putting it off forever.
Succession plans are great, but do not address the core problem. It is knowledge transfer programs that have proven to be the best solution to reduce the risk of loss of critical knowledge and experience in an aging workforce. In my company, for example, we routinely and measurably transfer more than 95% of an aging worker’s priority knowledge to our client’s next generation. Below are some of what I see as the important points concerning knowledge transfer and the aging worker:
Mitigating Aging Workforce Risks with Knowledge Transfer
1. Organizations need to isolate their critical, high priority knowledge.
We all know that long-time employees have tremendous repositories of information stored in their brains. The trouble is that not all that information is equally important. A good knowledge transfer program must have a way to sort out the high risk/high value expertise from the expertise that is already out of date or already exists in sufficient bench strength within the organization.
2. Solutions must transfer both explicit AND tacit knowledge of aging workers.
In order to be of real value, knowledge transfer must move both an aging worker’s explicit knowledge (such as how to fill out a form, follow a procedure, or build a widget) plus his or her tacit knowledge that we refer to as the “secret sauce.” This tacit knowledge includes things like how to troubleshoot problems, what to look for and listen for, which rules have to be followed and which ones can be ignored in what cases, who you have to know to get things done, when to push back and when to go along, etc. Any knowledge transfer program that doesn’t measurably hit both explicit and tacit knowledge isn’t going to keep a workforce prepared and competitive.
3. Knowledge transfer should be quick and on the job; you can’t afford to have your experts stop daily work to run formal classes.
Knowledge transfer has to happen simply, quickly, and in the moment. Virtually 100% of the aging experts who are asked to transfer their knowledge are among the busiest people in a company. They have to fit knowledge transfer into the fabric of their regular work or it will never happen. With two decades experience in the field, I’m certain on-the-job knowledge transfer IS possible, even for your busiest experts. And, since there are many nuances to what your experts must teach their successors, transferring knowledge on the job is often the best environment anyway.
4. Knowledge management (storing data) does not solve the problem; a business’s risk is not reduced until its critical knowledge is in the heads of, and understood by, next-generation workers.
While databases of documented knowledge may be valuable for some organizations, it isn’t enough to write down, scan, or videotape volumes of information with the idea that apprentices will locate it when they need it. Knowledge transfer programs have to put the right information into the heads and hands of the right workers for a company’s risk to be reduced. A mix of knowledge management tools and knowledge transfer is usually the best formula.
5. Measure that knowledge has transferred.
Knowledge transfer efforts have to be structured and measurable for a couple of reasons. Since aging experts are typically very busy, they have to have an organizing principle that will allow them to schedule and prioritize knowledge transfer relative to their other work. In other words, they need to clearly know who their apprentice and also have a plan to follow, or knowledge transfer will fall by the wayside. A clear plan of what unique knowledge and skills need to be transferred, in what priority and by when, give aging experts the structure they need. The second reason knowledge transfer has to be measurable is for accountability. Managers need a way to check in with the mentor/apprentice pair on a regular basis to get status. It isn’t enough to know that the two are “getting along.” A measureable plan enables managers to record regular progress on the transfer of high risk skills and knowledge, assuring the knowledge loss risk is being reduced.
In summary, if you are facing aging worker challenges within your workforce, take a look at your talent management initiatives today and make sure a good knowledge transfer program is among them—lest you risk your organization’s productivity and competitiveness in the near-future.