By Rex Huppke
July 29, 2016
As members of the baby-boom generation continue to selfishly retire, waltzing off to engage in ridiculous activities like "enjoying life" and "relaxing," the rest of us are left with the drudgery of work and, in many cases, a notable lack of institutional knowledge.
According to the Pew Research Center, 10,000 baby boomers are reaching age 65 each day. While it's been on the horizon for years, the reality of the boomer brain drain is still catching companies off guard, making "knowledge transfer" the buzzword du jour.
Before veteran workers depart, it's crucial they pass along not just a rough outline of how they do their jobs or a filing cabinet stuffed with old manuals and reports but some of the deeper knowledge gained from years of experience.
It's something Dorothy Leonard, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-founder of the consulting firm Leonard-Barton Group, calls "tacit knowledge."
"There's a big difference between information and knowledge," Leonard said. "Information is what you can get off of Google and what you can get from repositories. Knowledge, I would argue, is partially based on experience. So what I mean by tacit knowledge is stuff in your head that's never been written down, never been documented. Maybe you've never even articulated it."
That's why companies often fail to retain that deeper variety of knowledge once a longtime employee retires — they don't think to look for it, and it's not something a person writes in his or her carry-over note before racing out the door for the last time.
"Experts with a large experience base have a system perspective," Leonard said. "They can look at something and say, 'That's going to affect X, Y, and Z down the road.' It could be a doctor who says, 'This eye problem is actually linked to your immune system.' They have a sense of what interacts with what. That comes with experience, but some of it can be passed on."
One of the means of transferring that form of knowledge is something Leonard calls "mini experiences."
She told me about an experienced designer at a defense contractor that makes and assembles missiles who knew how important it was for design engineers to understand the assembly process.
"So this expert took (the person he was mentoring) to the end of the assembly line on the assembly floor where a technician was giving the final test," Leonard said. "There you can see all the mistakes that can occur when you put together individually assembled components."
It was a small mentoring moment, but: "The way our brain works, we attach new experiences to something that's already there. Now that new engineer not only has some new insights but a comprehension of the need to think about the assembly when designing. And to that experience he can attach new experiences. It creates receptors in our brain."
Duke Energy Nuclear in North Carolina has 6,000 workers in its nuclear division, and half of them are eligible to retire in the next five years.
The company assessed its knowledge transfer tools — everything from basic succession planning to mentoring — and found gaps in what workers benefited from and what was being used.
"An approach we've taken recently is based on the question, 'What knowledge do you want to retain?'" said Lee Causey, a senior nuclear engineer. "How do you break it down? At the departmental level, we've reached out to different managers and said, 'What are the critical skills that your team performs?' Next you look at how many people are fully competent at that, and how many people are in development or maybe not quite there. That way you can identify gaps and address them."
In working on knowledge transfer at his company, Causey has learned the importance of having open lines of communication between younger workers and veterans. Put simply, the greener employees can't feel afraid to admit that there's something they don't know, and the veterans need to be willing to share what they do know.
"The cultural shift I see is how willing we are to identify our knowledge gaps," Causey said. "I'm seeing more individual contributors come to their managers and say, 'I'd like to improve my skills in this arena' or, 'I'd like to work with this expert in our group.' That's a big change. We come in as total hotshots, we've got everything figured out. Just put me at my desk, and I'll get everything done. It's hard to admit that I don't know something. But I'm seeing a shift in that among young employees."
Another point he raised is that knowledge transfer can't be viewed as a one-and-done problem. It requires study and evaluation, and a willingness to acknowledge when something isn't working.
"We still have a long way to go," he said. "You have to respect the evolution of knowledge transfer and the diversity of it."
And you have to start making this a priority. Because once that knowledge walks out the door, it's likely to go park itself on a beach somewhere and turn its phone off.
And that puts us nonbeachgoers with our phones on at a distinct disadvantage.
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