Are You Ready For The Knowledge Exodus?

My whole working life of over forty years has been in the people arena; initially as a Trade Union Convenor and then through the ranks of Personnel Departments to the heights of Director. During that time, I have worked for small and large organisations in both Public and Private sectors. As I now reflect on these years, there is one matter that amazes me. Repeatedly, organisations I have worked with, and for, unnecessarily lose so much knowledge and experience. Not only that, but they are also willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of letting that knowledge and experience walk through the door.

These organisations all have admirable knowledge transfer systems in place. Handover schedules, training plans and strategic people plans. What they do not have is a systematic mechanism for the capture of experience of the 5% of key employees. This has become a genuine issue for organisations.

2022 is the return to a new normal as we start to exit the pandemic and concentrate on the Great Resignation. It is the time when staff are reassessing their own meaning of life and what they want from it. We have seen employees can work effectively and efficiently from home and this type of future work/life balance will, for some, be enjoyable or even relaxing.

As the custodians of organisational design, development and resources, managers have been acutely aware of the challenges an ageing workforce brings. Yet limited numbers have effectively addressed the potential consequences. There is a collective view that the current tried and tested approach of replacing elders (Baby Boomers) with bright new young ones will do – closely followed by a crossing of fingers and a rapid sticking of head in the sand.

Great Resignation

From my viewpoint, those who are going through the greatest reassessment of their purpose are the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. We may even see significant numbers of the more mature Generation X (1965 -1980) cohort decide it is time for a review of their lives. What does this mean for organisations and why is it a challenge?

These changing dynamics are a cultural and commercial challenge to organisations to ensure that knowledge and, more importantly, experience does not just disappear as in the past. Organisations that are serious about their own sustainability will have given thought towards succession planning and the transfer of practical knowledge packages. There will be training, handover protocols development plans in place. The challenge which exists and is amplified by the potential Great Resignation as well as the end of the pandemic, are the 5% of key personnel and/or roles within the organisation which are key to sustaining the culture, enduring the corporate intelligence, and capturing experience. The debate and discussion should be around how leaders identify the 5% and then what do we do about them.

This can be achieved by:

Resource Alignment (Strategic Workforce Planning) – an integrated and continuous process that identifies and addresses the critical gaps between the current workforce/sources and future needs in the context of the organisation’s strategic and business strategies.

Agile working (The Organisational Structure) – formal, and informal, organisational networks allowing the organisation to highlight potential issues and challenges. 

From my experience I have categorised three groupings for the 5%:

Outgoing – key employees, or role holders, who are leaving the organisation for any number of reasons. In general, they are exercising their right for retirement, looking for the next challenge or fulfilling a life goal.

Movers – members of teams who stay with the organisation but move on to new internal opportunities.

Incoming – those who initially entrance through their experience and skills yet are immediately assimilated into the ways of the organisation. New entrants have the potential to change the environment of any organisation and, if used correctly, this can be an enhancement.

To deal with these challenges, we have to accept that all organisations are unique and are shaped by the environment within which they exist. Therefore, any solutions are unique to individuals and their organisations. This is how the organisation should adopt appropriate interventions.

Neuro Leadership – a term coined in 2006 growing out of a need to understand more about how we could be better leaders, and be more effective at leading others and ourselves, by engaging with what our brain tells us about being human. We learn that the brain’s organising principle is to minimise threat and maximise reward and so we non-consciously behave in ways to avoid threat and bring us pleasure. The SCARF model which stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relationship, and fairness can be used to identify the areas most affected by threat or reward on the at risk 5%. 

Shadowing – most sustainable organisations will have a robust succession planning process but shadowing is an element of that process that provides individuals with opportunities to gain experience in readiness for the future needs of the organisation.

Mentoring – a complex set of factors including people skills, levels of commitment to the mentoring relationship and organisational influences can all impact on the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship.

Secondments – a temporary loan of an employee from one organisation, or one part of an organisation, to another, for a specific purpose and for a specific period. Under a secondment, an individual is doing work for the host organisation, under their instruction and for their purposes.

The purpose of this article has been to stimulate thought around the practice of knowledge and experience transfer. Whilst this is particularly relevant due to the pending great resignation and the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic – which themselves are exposing the flaws in the currently accepted hypothesis on how to approach the long-known ageing workforce challenges.

There is a real and immediate need to address the knowledge and experience exodus which is upon any business that wants to ensure commercial and organisation sustainability.

Written by Peter McCarthy, Director, The Knowledge Bank