Sunday, October 01, 2006

Keeping the knowledge you've got---from leaving....

You know you’re getting old when....

Although I’ve only been here at APQC for a few years, my professional life has spanned over 30. While that’s pretty hard for me to imagine, unfortunately the truth is that it is the truth. Starting during the height of the disco era is almost as embarrassing as admitting that I liked disco. Three decades and six employers later, I’ve been lucky enough to pick up quite a few tips and experience from every place I’ve been.

So when I was asked to do a webinar on the difficulties organizations have keeping their intellectual capital due to attrition—layoffs, voluntary quits, and especially retirements—I had to admit that why I was asked was because I was part of that demographic. I think I’ve got a few more good years left in me, but even if that’s the case, how does APQC plan to take advantage of the collected knowledge I’ve gained, both now and particularly when I’m ready to head out the door for the last time?

How does any company anticipate those needs? Or do they even recognize the problem before it’s too late? Do all companies plan for a retiree’s replacement only after they’re gone? And even if they know the time is near and post for a new hire, what about the loss of knowledge that leaves with the outgoing employee? You can’t simply replace that knowledge with a new body—or even two, or three. The point is, replacing the people isn’t the same as replacing their tacit knowledge and technical experience.

The problem is worse yet when a company initiates a reduction in force. There, the planning horizon is probably a lot shorter, and the ability to capture and retain the knowledge of those being laid off is limited at best. Having been laid off twice in my own career, I know that those organizations simply wanted me out as soon as possible so as not to create a disruption among those who remained. What they also didn’t get was any benefit of my knowledge—learned at their expense. My next employers were the beneficiaries of that.

Come to think of it, I was also a voluntary quit twice as well. In those cases, the companies I left were lucky to get two weeks worth of knowledge—or at least what knowledge I was willing to leave behind. Here again, on balance, I left with much more than I came in with.

So how does any organization plan for the loss of its knowledge? Some knowledge will always be lost to be sure, but how do smart organizations keep as much of it as possible? What’s their strategy? APQC will be looking at this problem over the next few months in a collaborative learning study titled, "Knowledge Retention & Transfer." They wanted me to start thinking about it now I suppose because they wanted me to be a part of the solution—and not the problem.