A now-client came to us months ago to help them tackle a stark reality: more than 500 years of high-value experience is expected to walk out their doors by the end of 2020. Fourteen employees – each with between 30 and 40 years of experience – are retiring, and no specific plan is in place to transfer their knowledge to younger workers. Without an adjustment, they were about to face a catastrophic loss of knowledge capital with no ability to recover.
Theirs is not an unusual story. Millennials will make up almost half of the workforce by 2020, a shift primarily due to the 10,000 baby boomers who are reaching retirement age daily. This begs the question: how are companies dealing with this challenge?
From what we see in our work, organizations employ one of five strategies to manage knowledge transfer:
Organizations that ostrich are ignoring the problem or assuming that it won’t hit them. They look around, figure things will work out fine, and are making no effort to make sure the company is sustainable. This strategy relies entirely on hope in the face of the evidence.
These organizations assume that just putting people together will make knowledge happen. It doesn’t matter that many baby boomers are avoiding working with millennials, and millennials don’t feel comfortable speaking with their older peers and superiors. This strategy is similar to sleeping with the Chemistry textbook under your pillow to help you pass the test.
While more involved than the Osmosis strategy, the Lottery strategy relies on happenstance to expose younger workers to the decisions and processes of their more experienced peers. The theory assumes that chance encounters will be enough for a less-experienced worker to pick up the nuances of how more senior colleagues make decisions. These organizations are expecting randomness to be enough.
The organizations who employ the Old-School strategy are on the right path – they’re actively investing in efforts to retain knowledge capital. Unfortunately, they’re using tools that aren’t responsive enough – like two-day seminars, keynote speeches, and mentorship programs – that prioritize exposure over learning. The result is organizational confusion as the considerable investments have no meaningful impact.
Organizations who are Deliberate provide specific learning opportunities to less-experienced workers with clear learning outcomes. Deliberate organizations will use exposure, chance encounters, and structured content as part of a learning system that includes coaching and performance feedback. This strategy, from our experience developing next leaders, is the only one that works.