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May 1, 2012

Last week in Lost Knowledge — What Are You and Your Organization Doing About It? — we discussed what “lost knowledge” is, its effects on companies, the costs involved, and some scary statistics on retirement.

Today, we’ll talk about what companies are doing about it — how they are passing on know-how. We will see a sample of knowledge retention strategies they are using to prevent employees’ acquired knowledge from walking out the door when they retire.

Here are some practices that companies have adopted to address this challenge:

Knowledge audits

Rolls-Royce — Audits are performed during day-long workshops. They consist of detailed interviews with older SMEs (subject matter experts) that pose questions about specific knowledge areas.

During the interviews, junior employees outline project tasks. The older SMEs then identify and provide tacit knowledge where needed to aid in project completion.


Aerospace — In its “shadowing program,” a new hire or junior employee (the shadower) follows a more experienced employee (an SME) on his/her job, after which the shadower writes down information about the experience for future reference.

This technique provides unique opportunities for veteran employees to share their experiences, thought processes, and decision-making strategies with more junior employees.

Part-time work

For many, the promise of retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The sudden abundance of free time can be difficult to handle and many retirees end up returning to the workforce part-time.

Why let them take their knowledge and skills somewhere else? Let them know that your company is willing to offer part time work (perhaps half days or shortened weeks) to ease the transition into retirement if they are interested in doing so.

Temporary project assignments

Consider giving retirees the option to stay involved with your company’s operations on a project by project basis. This is a great way for retirees to provide leadership on company projects while still having time to enjoy their retirement.

Unlike part-time work, it allows the retiree the option to pick and choose the projects they want to work on.

Alumni associations

One of the best ways to leverage retiree knowledge is through the use of alumni associations.

  • Chevron — They have chosen to create and maintain their own resource pool of former employees. By doing this, Chevron has a database they can tap when extra help is needed. This lowers recruiting costs that would be spent on external hiring.
  • Mitre Corporation — Five years ago Mitre introduced “Reserves at the Ready,” a program by which retirees can sign up to be part of a pool of potential workers available for projects or short-term assignments at the company.

Storytelling programs

Storytelling is a powerful tool for knowledge retention and transfer. Stories can supply context for company successes and lessons learned by older employees. Research has shown that storytelling is one of the best methods to use for knowledge retention.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) –– Provides an informal and experiential environment for both the storyteller and the listeners. The only criterion is that the speaker must present a personal story about his or her JPL experience. (More on storytelling in a future article.)

Company cultures have tremendous influence on older workers’ attitudes about leaving or staying and sharing knowledge before they go. Companies that have not created a secure, flexible and challenging environment that respects and motivates older workers will have a more difficult time gaining their cooperation in sharing knowledge.

Executives have no choice when it comes to knowledge retention. As the global economy recovers from the deepest recession in 70 years, companies need every competitive advantage they can find to survive and thrive. Retaining lost knowledge is one way to help.

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