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There’s a pending business crisis on the horizon. As baby boomers clear out their lockers and exit the workforce in increasing numbers, they’re taking more than just their belongings; they’re also taking with them a lifetime of precious knowledge and skills that are difficult, if not impossible, to replace. This massive exodus of talent will exasperate corporate brain drain and pose significant challenges for organizations to sustain operational efficiency and profitability.

by Mark C. Munion

A recent survey found that Baby Boomers are “the best-educated, most highly skilled aging workforce in U.S. history.” They have accumulated a significant amount of legacy knowledge between their ears over their decades of experience. However, they have also developed knowledge protection or ‘job protection’ syndrome. In order to increase their value and protect themselves, they’ve kept most of this knowledge to themselves. Sharing their vast ‘treasure chest’ of knowledge has never been a priority.

Loss of employees to retirement is inevitable. But, wise businesses that hope to maintain their operational efficiency and competitive edge recognize they must implement a knowledge transfer strategy to engage baby boomers, capture their collective knowledge and make it accessible to up-and-coming generations. This is a comprehensive and systemic strategy to continuously identify, evaluate, convey and transfer vital knowledge from employee to employee in a manner that minimizes the impact of lost expertise possessed by these exiting and retiring workers. Here are some steps to transfer this knowledge before it walks out the door and rides off into the sunset:

Recognize Explicit vs Tacit Knowledge

Explicit knowledge is documented knowledge (books, procedures, etc.) that can be easily identified, articulated, shared and employed. Users can collaborate on the value and use of the knowledge. Tacit knowledge is embedded in the human mind through experience and jobs. Personal wisdom and experience, context-specific, is much more difficult to extract and share.

Establish Knowledge Management Objectives

Identify the key or ‘go to’ people who are approaching retirement within the next 1 to 3 years. What would be the consequences of their loss? Create teams to develop both short-term and long-term objectives to address the potential gaps  and support long term business drivers. Recognize that there is no end-to-end knowledge management process. Knowledge management is a decentralized process. These teams would be responsible for developing and updating knowledge within their discrete areas of expertise.

Develop a Bench

Plan for the worst. Create redundancy into your staffing plans for critical positions. Identify, prepare and develop ‘backup players’ who are ready to step up and assume the roles and responsibilities in order to minimize disruptions when there is a vacancy. Ensure that there are at least two people who can step in during an emergency.

Conduct Comprehensive Training

Comprehensive training should include both formal and informal training. Formalized training would provide the foundation for the new employees to build upon as they assume their new roles. This foundation should then be reinforced with ‘job shadowing’ or on-the-job training to help employees put their knowledge into practice and build their confidence. Leadership should make a conscientious effort to pair experienced and inexperienced employees. In addition, as the experienced employees take vacation time, the inexperienced employees should step up into the roles, which can also help to close any remaining gaps that may still need to be addressed

As baby boomers potentially gear up for retirement and ride off into the sunset at an accelerating pace, all organizations, small and large, are in great danger of bleeding critical legacy knowledge at unprecedented rates. Those that ignore this imminent demographic shift are not only likely to experience brain drain, but  they also stand to lose their competitive edge as the new workforce struggles to maintain productivity and efficiency without the benefits of decades of hands-on knowledge of the job. A pre-emptive knowledge transfer strategy is paramount to minimize the talent gap and ensure a competitive advantage.