As baby boomers like me are retiring, companies are wondering how to retain the knowledge that walks out with them. At my recent retirement celebration, a company executive complimented me on my unique expertise and the knowledge I created over 39 years. Fortunately, some of my knowledge remains in the company because it is summarized in a book, Lean-Driven Innovation: Powering Product Development at The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. But that is only a small part of what I’ve learned over the years – the rest now resides with me.
Companies who develop products and/or services have spent billions of dollars generating knowledge; some of them do an excellent job sharing and reusing that knowledge. Knowledge reuse avoids reinventing knowledge that already exists, thus saving a significant amount of money and time. But this is not the norm: the average amount of knowledge that is being reused in the industry remains low, reportedly about 30%. Reasons for low knowledge reuse range from how knowledge is documented to the fact that many engineers find it more fun to reinvent things than to dig through manuals and databases. Not properly identifying and capturing knowledge in the first place is the main contributor, as companies allow more and more key technical experts to leave with undocumented knowledge in their heads.
Baby boomer retirements have started and will continue in coming years — tripling the retirements in some come companies. This has magnified the reuse problem, spurring more companies to interview retirees prior to their departures. That’s better than getting nothing out of retirees, but, unfortunately, most of the interview material becomes text in a database. Future generations will have a hard time finding it, and, if they do, understanding it. Some exit interviewees justifiably wonder why the company waited until the last week of their careers. For some it will be the first time they’ve shared their knowledge, having believed throughout their careers that their value in the company was higher by not sharing what they knew.
The amount of knowledge reuse can be tripled by some tricks that I learned through nearly four decades in R&D:
- Interview people earlier in their careers: Good companies are well aware who their key technical experts are, and some have a special career path for them (technical ladder). As those folks consult with younger colleagues and mentor them, good knowledge transfer occurs. Establish mentor/mentee relationships.
- Make an effort to turn text into knowledge: Most knowledge experts agree that text in a database is of little value. People may not know where it is stored, and they often cannot comprehend and reuse it after their tedious search. After all, technology and technical concepts are complicated these days. Give knowledge reusers some help — enrich text with summaries, graphs (e.g., tradeoff curves), briefs (written by the expert), and/or by the use of tools like affinity diagrams or even artificial intelligence software.
- Formally share knowledge: Ask experts to teach what they know to the younger members of the organization. Develop a training structure that enables engineers with crucial knowledge to formally teach what they know in the last years of their careers. This helps to ensure that knowledge is transferred and allows for interaction and questions by younger engineers to assure they have understood the technology.
- Overlap outgoing with incoming: Some companies consider managing the overlap of outgoing and incoming staff a waste of time and resources, and others are unable to coordinate the exit and the entrance of employees. Neither type are able to assess the value of knowledge they are losing. Give outgoing employees the chance to teach their replacements.
- Try to keep the experts, at least on a part time basis: This is often not possible due to company policies, separation agreements, headcount limitations, and/or contracting policies — as it was in my case. Be creative, and find ways to occasionally tap into the knowledge of retirees.
- Make sure that all that is in people’s head regularly finds its way into knowledge management tools: The best way to assure knowledge retention and reuse is to put it into standards, design tools, tradeoff curves, white papers, etc.But this is not going to occur if a company waits until an exit interview. Encourage individuals to reflect on their work and projects when completed, examine what went well and what did not go well, identify new knowledge that was generated, and figure out ways the new knowledge can be applied going forward.
You may think this is all common sense, and I agree. Unfortunately, a lot of barriers frequently get in the way of common sense and result in ineffective knowledge reuse. The good news is that most of the barriers are self-inflicted and can be removed without too much of a problem. And the knowledge you retain and reuse will be worth the effort.