Managing Knowledge Transfer When Older Workers Leave

By Roy Strauss

As older, highly skilled workers leave the workforce, how can talent managers ensure that the years of valuable experience don’t leave, too? With the shifting demographics in the U.S. workforce, this problem is happening daily in many companies and industries.

To a large extent, organizations run on the knowledge and skills of their people, especially the “tribal knowledge” of how things work and are done “here,” whether it’s in information technology, sales, manufacturing, human resources or the C-suite.

Without a consistent, effective way to transfer and share this knowledge, critical people leave and take this critical knowledge with them, resulting in business disruption and potential customer dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, most organizations have no consistent method of dealing with such a crisis when it occurs. Instead, managers and co-workers are left to “deal with it,” often perpetuating problems, while the business suffers.

But what knowledge is critical to transfer?

Knowledge is often categorized into explicit — overt — knowledge or tacit — hidden — knowledge.

  • Explicit knowledgeInformation normally found in documents, databases and procedure manuals, or learned in school or formal training. This is often the knowledge that people “know they know” and is already documented.
  • Tacit knowledgeUndocumented, intuitive knowledge and know-how, gained by experience, which usually resides in the minds of experts. Experts may not even know that they know this information, often being the knowledge of an organization and its informal procedures, personnel responsibilities and history.

In most organizations, the high risk is in losing the tacit knowledge that comes with many years’ experience in an organization and that makes people effective in their job.

What is needed is a flexible and consistent process for eliciting, capturing and transferring tacit knowledge.

Having worked with numerous companies to do this, the following process has proven highly effective:

  1. Identification of subject areas and knowledge items.
  2. Prioritization of those items.
  3. Creating a plan for transferring items.
  4. Training on various knowledge transfer tools.
  5. Use of appropriate tools to capture specifics of each knowledge item.
  6. Storage of completed tools in accessible location — Knowledge Management system, SharePoint, shared drives, etc.

In the process, an expert or mentor works together with a protégé or mentee in a “knowledge team.” Protégés use the tools to interview the expert and probe for more information and transcribe the information for later reference.

With participants working together through the process, several benefits are achieved:

  • It ensures the needs of both individuals are met.
  • It gives protégés the opportunity to clarify items.
  • It encourages an ongoing mentoring relationship between the individuals.

This process has proven to be highly flexible and adaptable to a variety of industries, subject areas and organizational situations.

Also, organizations can react quickly to impending departures. Or better yet, use the process proactively in a mentoring program to prepare for such contingencies and continually improve the skills and performance of high potentials and other individuals in the talent pipeline.

While this process can easily use new electronic technology, it is not dependent upon it. Participants have completed the process very successfully with pen and paper, laptop computers and even Web meetings.

Talent management means not only finding the right people and giving them the resources they need, but also providing the skills and processes to ensure their personal success and the ongoing success of the organization.

Reprinted from Talent Management


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