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Don't Let Knowledge Walk Out the Door

As Baby Boomers retire, companies wonder how to retain the knowledge that walks out with them. They have spent billions of dollars generating knowledge, and some of them do an excellent job sharing and reusing that knowledge.

Solid knowledge reuse practices prevent companies from wasting time and money reinventing knowledge that already exists. But these companies are not the norm: The average amount of reused knowledge in manufacturing remains low, reportedly about 30%.

Reasons for low knowledge reuse range from ineffective documentation of ideas and processes to the fact that many engineers find it more fun to reinvent things than to dig through manuals and databases. When companies don't properly identify and capture knowledge, they allow more and more key technical experts to leave with undocumented knowledge in their heads.

Boomer retirements have 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 just becomes text in an obscure database. Future generations will have a hard time finding it, and, if they do, understanding it. Some exit interviewees will 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.

Here are some knowledge reuse best practices 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.

Get it down as it happens. The best way to assure knowledge retention and reuse is to put it into standards, design tools, trade-off curves, white papers, etc. 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-imposed and can be removed without too much of a problem. And the knowledge you retain and reuse will be worth the effort.

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