You may have a workforce comprised of many talented workers, but what happens when those top performers leave your organization? Here are seven steps to help ensure knowledge retention in the face of retirements and turnover.
by David Vance
March 27, 2006
Jack has been working in the finance department of his company for more than 20 years, and when it comes to his company’s finance function, Jack can solve pretty much every issue that comes his way. Always willing to help, Jack is a tremendous asset to his company. So what will happen to the finance department when Jack retires?
In today’s environment, driven by globalization and ever-increasing integration of products, you need unique solutions, top service and innovative approaches to differentiate your company from your competitors. Because most of the creative ideas you need to achieve your business targets reside in the heads of your employees, human capital has become one of your key assets. You have great talent in your organization? Fantastic. Just be aware that it can easily walk out the door with a backpack and brain full of the knowledge you depend on.
Losing Critical Knowledge
In addition to natural staff turnover, retirement and job-changes, causes such as restructuring, mergers, takeovers, job cuts and even internal job rotation also can lead to loss of critical knowledge in your company. This process accelerates, especially in dynamic projects that involve external consultants, leaving the organization either dependent on expensive resources or facing knowledge loss.
Of course, ideally all organizations would enable knowledge creation and knowledge sharing while simultaneously attempting to retain as much of their knowledge assets as possible. But unfortunately, many organizations do not do this successfully. Knowledge retention has been recognized as a central problem, and a vast number of approaches, ideas and recommendations are floating on the marketplace that promise to help you to plug the brain drain. But what is it that makes knowledge retention such a struggle? And why do most organizations fail to protect themselves?
There is no one standard method to create “good” knowledge retention, as each organization places importance on different aspects of knowledge. The tacit knowledge in your employees’ heads is hard to document or formalize, making storage and retention very difficult. Most organizations tend to approach knowledge retention with a tools-driven approach to justify their budget and produce tangible results. This leads to a system-driven view resulting in the implementation of company intranets, document management systems, blogs, wikis, search engines, meta searches and so on. The problem is that to store knowledge, you need to formalize it. And formalization might work for standardized processes, but it only scratches the surface of the problem of tacit knowledge retention.
Usually, knowledge retention is not a priority because everybody is busy with the day-to-day business. This applies especially to projects with tight timelines where the last thing the team is worried about is ensuring knowledge transfer when the deadline is approaching. You also will not be able to suck out the knowledge accumulated during several years of work experience in one exit interview held the week your employee leaves.
Knowledge retention is not lived as a strategic priority but only as a statement written in some dusty strategy paper, completely lacking demonstrated top- and middle-management support. And if your boss does not bother, why should you?
Usually, there are different initiatives scattered between the learning department, the HR department and sometimes the internal communications department leading to island initiatives with limited impact.
So what can you do to make knowledge retention work for your organization? Fortunately, to be successful you do not need a big budget or highly sophisticated, expensive consulting methods. All that is needed is to consistently implement some simple rules.
Step1: Ensure Sponsorship and Clear Responsibilities
Knowledge retention, like any other initiative or project, works best if management visibly supports it and if you have the right people to do it. So before you start, make sure you get a supporting statement and clear communication from management. Also ensure you have the right team defined and mobilized to carry out the initial setup project and later on ensure a consistent approach. Ideally, a knowledge retention project team would consist of:
- The CLO or representatives from learning and development.
- Representatives from internal communications.
- Representatives from HR.
- Representatives from business units.
- A top management sponsor, or, if you have the opportunity, a sounding board consisting of executives who will review progress on regular basis.
Having a multidisciplinary project team with representatives from management will give your initiative credibility and thus ensure you receive the right level of contribution. Involving people from different corners of the organization will help you ensure that what you do is relevant and useful for end users and the business instead of shooting out into the blue assuming you know what your organization wants and needs to know.
Step 2: Be Selective
Successful knowledge retention is not about perfectly retaining every tiny piece of knowledge, but rather the things that are critical for success over the competitors and that are vital for business continuity. Depending on the nature of the business, this might be knowledge about or relationships with customers, knowledge about key operational processes, a country or geography and its business customs, internal infrastructure, knowledge about a particular market, etc.
The key is to define the pieces of knowledge that are vital for your organization and thus support your strategic objectives. Defining and documenting the pieces of knowledge that support your business strategy will make your approach focused and will allow you to spend time and resources on what matters for future success.
Step 3: Identify Where Knowledge Is and Prioritize
Once you have identified the critical areas of knowledge you want to retain, it is a good idea to identify where in your workforce this knowledge actually resides. There might be pieces of knowledge you want to retain from every employee and pieces that might be specific to a particular department. To document these critical areas, you can either develop a knowledge map or implement an expert finder system. The knowledge map is faster and involves almost no implementation costs but is static. An expert finder application requires higher implementation costs but might provide you with a good return on investment if kept current and updated.
Once you have identified where the critical areas of knowledge reside, you can start prioritizing the most important areas to your organization and the areas you identified in step 2, the link with your business strategy.
If linked to a time-phased approach, this approach, facilitated by the multidisciplinary team, will allow you to make your harvesting initiative pragmatic and tangible. Split in small chunks, starting with the critical first, you will be able to harvest and retain the knowledge that is most important and actually worth the effort.
Step 4: Follow a Structured Approach
Based on the identified priorities, define the best and easiest method to harvest knowledge. Depending on the type of knowledge you are trying to retain, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, so you will need to be creative. There are a number of tools that might be helpful, such as:
- Retain your best people: Good internal communication and consistent change management throughout restructures, takeovers, outsourcing initiatives or other major changes in your organization will help you keep your key talent on the way.
- Exit interviews: These work best if you target the specialist in a particular field, prolific inventors or people in charge of a set of relationships either inside or outside the company. This is especially recommended for those who have not nominated or do not have a successor.
- Alumni networks: These target employees who might be interested in staying connected with the company (e.g., those going on early retirement). Also, events and parties involving former workforce might be a good opportunity to keep critical networks going.
- Alternative forms of employment: Retiring employees might wish to stay connected with the company on a part-time basis as coaches and mentors or to solve specific problems.
- Communities of practice or expert networks: These help spread knowledge in the organization and thus reduce dependency on one single employee.
- Exit checklists: These will allow you to take care of the minimal formalities that might at later stage make life a lot easier. For example, this might include ensuring that critical documents are stored in the right place, access rights are handed over, key phone numbers and contacts are known, etc.
There also is a range of IT tools that you could use to support your harvesting approach, such as Powerknow, Documentum and PowerDocuments. However, for successful tacit knowledge harvesting, IT is secondary. Regardless of which method you select to capture your key knowledge, keep in mind that what counts is:
- You have to have a structured approach that supports the capture of the knowledge you have identified as key.
- You have to make it a continuous effort: One-off island initiatives will allow you to capture only fragments and the harvested knowledge will be old before you come around to re-use it.
Keep in mind that it takes time to see first results and leverage the benefits that are usually intangible.
Step 5: Live It and Celebrate Success
The success of every knowledge management initiative depends on the contribution from colleagues and how the outcome is used. Unfortunately, getting the initial contribution is hard because people are busy with day-to-day work and thus the outcome might be limited, leading to even less quality input. Besides demonstrated management support, good communication can help you to break this cycle. You have to sell the initiative to people, making it attractive for them to contribute. This works best if you use real case studies, real people from your organization and real quotes explaining to others their experience with your initiative because the real stuff with real people will show others that knowledge retention is a reality in your organization, not just some hybrid concept. And the representative from internal communications on your project team can help you leverage the most appropriate internal communication channels right from the start.
Step 6: Evaluate, Improve and Clean
Review how retained knowledge is used on a regular basis. This can take place via focus-group interviews or surveys. Regardless of the method, make sure you understand how people use the knowledge and which approaches are effective. At the end of the day, it is only worth the effort if your initiatives and the retained knowledge help support business targets. This is particularly important as you might get new ideas throughout the review process, but also because the critical knowledge your organization needs to retain will change over time as the business evolves.
Reviewing the effectiveness and usage of your initiatives also will allow you to keep it fresh. On one hand, you will get rid of old or irrelevant knowledge. On the other hand, you will keep users’ attention with fresh ideas.
Step 7: Formalize It
Once you have implemented a set of initiatives, it is recommended you make knowledge retention part of the standardized processes in your organization. Here you can leverage the strong link to HR and employee recruiting and succession planning as well as objectives setting and annual reviews by including the contribution to specific knowledge retention initiatives in these formal processes. Once you have taken this final step, your organization no longer needs to worry about critical knowledge walking out of the door, because consistent retention has now become part of your company’s culture and daily business.
Even though knowledge retention is one of the key issues in today’s organizations, there is a lot that can be done without huge investments in costly IT or the realization of mammoth projects. If linked to business strategy, split in small chunks, built around users and spiced up with good communication, you can help your organization prevent or mitigate the loss of critical knowledge and ensure everyone can focus on what matters: your business.
Olga Miler has profound international experience in project management, mainly related to the change and transition management aspects of large-scale business engineering programs. She currently works for ZIEL Consulting AG in Zurich, Switzerland. Olga can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.