Critical Knowledge Holders: Are You One?

Every now and then, we hear about the large number of employed people who are on the verge of retiring and the risk to their employers of having irreplaceable knowledge walk out the door with them. Yet it seems to me that not enough companies are taking positive steps to meet this challenge before it becomes an epidemic.

It does occur to me that I might not know everything that’s going on “out there,” so I could easily be missing actions that companies are taking. I’m certainly willing to be educated on this subject, so I appreciate it when I read articles that discuss it. Today I read an article in, titled “Managing Knowledge Transfer When Older Workers Leave,” that addresses the subject from the perspective of corporate talent managers–that is, what those individuals need to be aware of.

Because some of the article’s information might well be of interest to those of you who don’t happen to be corporate talent managers, I decided to share a couple of its points briefly.

Lack of Preparation

“Without a consistent, effective way to transfer and share this knowledge, critical people leave and take this critical knowledge with them, resulting in business disruption and potential customer dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, most organizations have no consistent method of dealing with such a crisis when it occurs. Instead, managers and co-workers are left to “deal with it,” often perpetuating problems, while the business suffers.”

Broadly speaking, then, the author, Roy Strauss, describes a situation that indicates not many companies are prepared–or preparing–for the knowledge-drain. The result is all too likely to be a major challenge.

Need for a Process and a Plan

Strauss provides a multi-step process that includes creating a knowledge-transfer plan and training employees on use of the tools required to execute the plan effectively. Presumably, there are other experts that are taking on this difficult subject and might have their own views on what’s required, but the important point is that some kind of action plan must be developed and applied if anything consistent is going to happen to remedy the situation.

I don’t know how much traction Strauss’ process has gained, but he indicates that he has used it with a number of companies successfully.

Are You a Critical Knowledge Holder?

The other thing that struck me about this subject has to do with individuals who are themselves critical knowledge holders and possibly approaching retirement. If you’re one of them, have you given any thought to what happens after you leave? Maybe not, because it won’t be your “problem” then. However, someone in your organization–such as your immediate boss–certainly should be thinking about it…and maybe worrying a little if nothing is being done to conserve your knowledge for future use.

Along similar lines, if you manage one or more employees who are critical-knowledge holders and might be retiring in the not-too-distant future, I suspect you’re the one who should be worrying! If your company doesn’t have a plan and process in place, can you do anything to promote one? If that’s an uphill battle because senior management isn’t buying into the need, can you implement something in your own department? At the very least, that could put you ahead of the game in terms of helping to avoid disaster.

One last point: Documenting critical knowledge should be a non-negotiable part of the process. I once worked at a company whose VP of Product Engineering left unexpectedly. It turned out that a lot of the work being done came from knowledge that was mostly in his head. That was not a happy time!

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