Intelligence Lost: Seven Innovative Steps to Ensure Boomer Retirement Doesn’t Create Knowledge Vacuum

Boomer RetirementThe U.S. business community is facing a war of intelligence attrition. Fortune 500s will see countless experienced knowledge workers walk out the door over the next two decades. The U.S. Armed Forces are losing millions of officers and key personnel to retirement.

For even those companies that thrive on innovation, the numbers are daunting – and demand action. Some 900,000 white collar workers from the Executive Branch of government, and another 5,400 federal executives, will be up for retirement over the next decade, according to an August 2007 study from Tandberg.

A McKinsey Quarterly survey in 2007 found that the Baby Boomer generation is “the best-educated, most highly skilled aging workforce in U.S. history.” Though they’re “only” about 40% of the workforce, they comprise more than half of all managers and almost half of all professionals, like doctors and lawyers.

Many are preparing to leave – and American leadership isn’t prepared to lose them. To paraphrase one-time presidential contender Ross Perot, that “giant sucking sound” being heard across the business landscape is the vacuum of combined knowledge locked up in the heads of millions of baby boomers heading off into retirement.

As the boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) retires, executive leadership faces a daunting task: How to ensure key intelligence and know-how doesn’t walk out the door when they retire. The loss of business intelligence and corporate knowledge, especially in R&D-focused companies or organizations, could amount to billions of dollars in lost intellectual capital. Leaders must act fast.

Even those organizations with young employees must consider knowledge management. Knowledge loss also occurs as key personnel resign or are lost to illness or tragedy, taking with them a trove of irreplaceable knowledge.

The question becomes: How do leaders keep the older generation actively engaged so that process of extracting and archiving key information is interesting, challenging and rewarding?

Establish and share rules of and rationales for engagement. Determine how information gathering will be accomplished – for example, by questionnaire, survey, online system, etc. Will sales people drop into the contact management system such key nuggets as a client’s admin’s name, or the client’s birthday, or his preference to be called Robert, and not Bob, thus strengthening key relationships? If so, be sure to tell the entire organization to do this – and why this is should be done.

Scan the personnel landscape. Create a database charting individual or shared “expertise clusters” across the organization. Use relationship software or “spiders” to track knowledge by department and employee (See exhibit example). Learn, cross-reference and document where key knowledge or competencies reside. If a key term or phrase were searched by project or product, specific individuals’ names should come up.

Set up a database or system for collecting information. This is especially important in larger organizations. It’s not enough to do a “knowledge dump” from one person to another. Resignation or illness could strike, leaving the company in the same situation again. Create a sustainable “Knowledge Library” system to capture key data, information and processes. Databasing solutions can be as simple as a shared Excel spread sheet, or use of enterprise collaboration platforms like Confluence (http://www.atlassian.com/software/confluence/), Socialtext (http://www.socialtext.com/) or TWiki (http://twiki.org/). Easy to create, update and maintain, sharing knowledge across the organization becomes a simple process.

Create a home for – and invite – nuanced info. At my old company, we manufactured screw-on pumps that turned liquid soap into foam. Early on, clients called about “leakers” – pumps that loosened during shipment. Our president discovered the right amount of “let off torque” to keep them in place. Because how much torque varied by bottle type, such experience-borne knowledge could not be written in customer instructions. Soon after, he took ill and left the company – but not before writing this key bit of pass-along information in a reference manual used by everyone who’s come after him.

Build bridges early on. Like a mentor / apprentice relationship, encourage interaction between the generations. This can foster an esprit de corps and facilitate a transfer of knowledge across ranks and age groups.

Host events to bring people together. Monthly breakfasts, after-work happy hour “spit & whittle” chats, and other informal exchanges can create opportunities for verbal or hands-on knowledge sharing. Hold a seminar in effective knowledge-sharing principles and practices; invite the entire organization.

Use social media and online tools. Create a closed group on LinkedIn, subscribe to an online whiteboard or collaborative application, create a spreadsheet or chart on Google Docs, set up a blog, forum or company intranet where retirees can return online and enter insights they recall after leaving the organization. Don’t be afraid to “crowd source” new ideas from retirees by sending eblasts or messages via group tools.

Make knowledge sharing a continual, perpetual habit, not a one-time act. Encourage people to document and share what they know. Invite, even incentivize retirees to return to share solutions later when they may recall something they’ve done in the past.

Remember, no tidbit is too small. It’s just not about the knowledge behind what they did. Gather details regarding the work-arounds they devised and the minutia involving their otherwise undocumented experience of things that work – and things that don’t. Even informal practices – like a workflow system that has proven effective – must be put into writing for archival and sharing purposes.

Boomers are retiring. Years of hard data and soft know-how is preparing to leave your organization. Are you prepared to avoid the vacuum?

By Robert Brands with Jeff Zbar [www.gotwords.biz]

Robert F. Brands, a veteran corporate executive who now consults with companies worldwide and author of Robert’s Rules of Innovation (www.robertsrulesofinnovation.com). Brands, a senior executive for companies like GTE, Kohler and Rexam, is president and founder of InnovationCoach.com. Having gained hands-on experience in bringing innovation to market, creating and improving the necessary product development processes and needed culture, he delivered and exceeded bringing “at least one new product per year to market” resulting in double digit profitable growth and shareholder value.