An increasing number of workers are approaching retirement age in the United States. Many possess critical knowledge and skills obtained over many years of on-the-job experience, which is difficult, if not impossible, to replace. This accumulated knowledge is a precious resource for their organizations, and when they depart, the remaining employees are in the difficult position of carrying on without it.
Knowledge is often categorized as explicit (overt) or tacit (hidden):
- Explicit knowledge is codified information normally found in documents, databases, or procedure manuals, or learned in school or formal training. This is often the knowledge that people “know they know” and is already documented.
- Tacit knowledge is undocumented, intuitive knowledge gained by experience (a.k.a. wisdom), which usually resides in the mind of the expert. This is often critical but hidden knowledge that experts may not even know that they know, and includes organizational information such as business processes, informal procedures, and people knowledge.
In most organizations, the highest risk is in losing the tacit knowledge that comes with many years’ experience. Few organizations are equipped to capture this tacit knowledge before a retiree leaves, much less transfer it to those who remain.
Case in Point
One organization that is facing this threat of impending retirements is KONE, a major Finnish company (with a large U.S. business unit) that designs, installs, and maintains elevators and people transport systems in apartment and office buildings, airports, train stations, and other structures and locations.
Within KONE’s U.S. organization, the learning and development team, managed by Karen Waterlander, is responsible for instructional design, training content development, and technical documentation. Karen’s team contains several individuals who have been with the company for well over 20 years, and they have accumulated considerable knowledge about the company’s products, services, and informal processes and procedures. Several of these “go-to” veterans have expressed their intent to retire or drastically reduce their work hours.
In anticipation, Karen is working with her team to identify critical areas of work and pairing employees to begin transitioning key responsibilities. To increase speed to proficiency, Karen decided to proactively initiate the transfer of knowledge from the veterans to the new employees.
Six Steps to Knowledge Transfer
Having assisted other organizations with this same issue, we helped her implement a proven knowledge transfer process consisting of the following steps:
- Identify subject areas and knowledge items.
- Prioritize those knowledge items.
- Have each team develop a scheduled plan to transfer the knowledge items.
- Train people on various knowledge transfer tools, such as process flow charts, RACI charts, and mind maps.
- Capture content for each knowledge item using the appropriate tools.
- Store completed tools in an accessible location, such as a knowledge management system, SharePoint, or shared drives.
Participants were organized into “knowledge teams” consisting of experts and protégés. The teams followed the process outlined above. Steps 1 through 5 used templates and tools from the ShareSmarts Knowledge Transfer process. In step 5, protégés used the knowledge tools to interview their experts, discuss the knowledge items, and document the information elicited.
As a result of following this process, the teams have been successful in proactively transferring critical, tacit knowledge from experts to protégés. The department is much better prepared for the departure of experts, several of whom will be retiring in the near future or have already cut back hours without an adverse effect on the department. Protégés are now performing duties previously owned by experts, providing the department with important resiliency and contingency preparations. Documenting this tacit knowledge has also made it explicit and therefore preserved it for the future.
In addition, experts nearing retirement are feeling more valued, and department colleagues are using the knowledge transfer tools for additional tasks, such as collecting content from subject matter experts when developing training and documentation.
According to Karen, “The knowledge transfer initiative was very valuable and gives us the ability to continue functioning smoothly when our critical people retire.” Clearly, when key people near retirement, you can mitigate the loss of knowledge and skills with this six-step knowledge transfer process.