Knowledge Retention: How to Deal with a Departing Workforce

Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

March 04, 2021

For the past 20 years, much has been written about the big brain drain, the great shift change, and the aging workforce. No matter what it is called, the issue is that important knowledge is walking out the door of many organizations and will not be returning. This post discusses this problem and what can be done about it.

Experience and expertise are being lost from work units for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. Retirement: Workers retire, either due to age or being unable or unwilling to find new jobs.
  2. Promotions, relocations, and role changes: People leave their jobs due to taking on new ones.
  3. Temporary workers, contractors, and consultants: Full-time roles are replaced with part-time or non-permanent ones, reducing continuity.
  4. Mergers, acquisitions, consolidations, and reorganizations: Organizational restructuring leads to voluntary and involuntary departures.
  5. Changes in strategy, focus, or specialty: Organizations take new directions and replace the workforce accordingly.
  6. Workforce reductions: Cost-cutting measures result in layoffs.
  7. Short-term job mentality: Long-time, loyal employees are not valued as fads and quick profits are chased.
  8. Disillusionment: Employees see endless changes, widespread layoffs. and leadership failures, and become cynical about the organization.
  9. Illness, death, or care giving: People become sick, die, or have to devote themselves to caring for relatives.
  10. Leaving for new jobs: Workers find work at other organizations.

Here are five approaches to dealing with this challenge:

  1. Share: Ask those who may be departing to share documents, insights, nuggets, tips, tricks, and techniques.
  2. Innovate: Ask veteran workers to create better ways of doing things based on their experience.
  3. Reuse: Institutionalize processes to reuse lessons learned, proven practices, and deliverables.
  4. Collaborate: Enable collaboration between those departing and those remaining.
  5. Learn: Assign apprentices to experienced mentors.

Here are ten knowledge management methods that can be used:

  1. Proven practices: Document, replicate, and repeat.
  2. Lessons learned: Record, review, and reuse.
  3. Communities of Practice: Ask everyone with a common specialty, ranging from newbies to long-time practitioners to retirees, to join and participate.
  4. Social Network Analysis: Identify the key connectors and go-to-resources.
  5. Enterprise Social Networks: Enable online conversations that can be tagged, preserved, and searched.
  6. Videos: Record tutorials, nuggets, and stories, and then get others to watch them.
  7. Document collection: Contribute, tag, and make searchable.
  8. Storytelling: Ask people to tell stories on community calls, in apprenticeships, and in recorded videos.
  9. Incentives: Offer incentives to share, reuse, and stay connected after departing, especially as active members of communities of practice.
  10. Knowledge maps: Map essential knowledge, including what is needed. who has it, how it is used, and how it flows.

Here are ten suggestions for retaining organizational knowledge:

  1. Make sure you have a knowledge management program in place. Don’t wait until people are about to retire or depart.
  2. Preserve community contributions and community discussion threads in an archive.
  3. Ask thought leaders to develop training courses on their specialties.
  4. Provide incentives for creating personal guides to processes, contacts, and content.
  5. Conduct interviews using videos and community spotlights to collect stories, instructions, and tips.
  6. Ask people to submit their top ten most used documents.
  7. Produce a knowledge map to define knowledge sources, flows, and constraints.
  8. Establish mentor/apprentice pairs as far in advance of departures as possible.
  9. Hold transition workshops to allow departing people to tell stories and answer questions.
  10. Form a community for former members of the organization and allow retirees to continue to participate in communities as long as they can contribute.
Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

Please read Stan’s additional blog posts offering advice and insights drawn from many years as a KM practitioner. You may also want to download a copy of his book, Proven Practices for Implementing a Knowledge Management Program, from Lucidea Press.  And learn about Lucidea’s Inmagic Presto and SydneyEnterprise with KM capabilities to support successful knowledge management programs.

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