When you’re thinking about surviving in the current economy, you are probably not thinking about retaining the knowledge of key workers, but the two go hand-in-hand. No two people possess the exact same knowledge. If you have two VPs of Sales and you have to let one of them go, how do you capture the knowledge held by that person? If you have to halve your IT department, you don’t want to also halve the knowledge held by that department. How will you capture the knowledge of the departing employees?
Lost knowledge can be expensive to recapture, and it can take years. Tacit knowledge in particular may never be retrieved once it is gone. A VP of sales may know the quirks or specific needs of certain clients; a chemist may know to expect a certain color or viscosity of a compound before it is at the peak of its effectiveness; an engineer just “feels” when a mechanism is assembled properly.
The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found in a 2008 survey that while most companies believe knowledge retention is important, only a small percentage of companies have a strategy in place.
Companies use various strategies to help them retain knowledge when employees retire, separate, or are lost due to layoffs or downsizing. Strategies will differ depending on industry, size of organization and a number of other factors. Here are some strategies that have proven effective for various companies:
- Social networking tools can cut through the chaos of information on the internet and improve the way workers share knowledge. One 2008 survey found that 40% of large companies (those with 10,000 or more employees) used social networking to tap the knowledge of their workers. Smaller companies may be slower to adopt this practice. Social networking can reach people beyond the score of a company newsletter or a mass email and it allows workers to share information in real time. And its scope reaches beyond the company, so workers can network with peers anywhere in the world.
- Intranet. An intranet, such as a wiki or blogs, is used by workers within a company to share knowledge and information. This is especially effective in companies with facilities in diverse locations. Workers performing the same function thousands of miles apart are given the capacity to share valuable information and best practices.
- Phased retirement strategies are becoming more prevalent as companies attempt to capture the talent of workers before they retire. There are many ways to structure a phased retirement program to meet the needs of the individual company and its employees. The employee may work part time, on a seasonal basis or on special projects that arise. The retiree may be called upon to train new hires or to be available to mentor younger workers. Some companies are even looking at ways to rehire their retired employees. Phased retirement is beneficial to the employer, who is able to retain critical talent, and at the same time help employees meet their retirement expenses, while perhaps easing the worker into a new phase of life. In the first quarter of 2008, American Express launched a pilot phased retirement program. Participants gradually give up their day-to-day responsibilities while they spend their time mentoring and teaching master classes to their successors, while receiving a reduced salary and full benefits. This program is being tested in the company’s technology and finance units.
- Learning communities can be virtual or face-to-face, and they allow workers who perform the same tasks to “meet” and share experiences and best practices, or questions about processes and procedures. This is also called a community of practice. Communities may “meet” on a regular basis, or they may get together spontaneously as the need arises. The group should have as leader or facilitator a more experienced employee. These communities are particularly useful when similar tasks are performed at diverse locations.
- Develop an online data base. Employees will be able to access it to use for reference. They can add to the data base as an active participant in the company’s knowledge retention efforts and interact with peers.
- Knowledge maps consist of business process diagrams in which each step of a process is linked to specific knowledge and training. This strategy is being used by a municipal power company in California, as its workforce ages and there is great need to capture and share knowledge. This strategy captures role names, technologies, and learning reference materials.
- Coaching and mentoring is now widely accepted by organizations worldwide. Coaching and mentoring are no longer seen as beneficial only for high performing future leaders, but as baby boomers inch toward retirement, they have been working one-on-one with younger workers to impart tacit knowledge. And 77% of respondents to a 2008 DBM study indicated a high return on investment as a result of coaching and mentoring, making this strategy even more attractive.
After researching the topic of knowledge retention I have learned several useful tips for knowledge retention. The tips listed above were used by companies to improve knowledge retention in their businesses. But if these tips worked for them, couldn’t they work for school systems? I believe that you could apply each of these tips to school systems. High school students tend to excessively use social networks, so school systems could take advantage of that to utilize the growth of knowledge. Many other tips on this list have already been implemented in some minor way, like coaching and mentoring as tutoring by other students. Also teachers have begun to utilize blogs and wikis to optimize learning efficiency.