Knowledge preservation

For most companies in today's knowledge economy, the workforce is the supreme driver of performance. So what happens when a keystone worker, or a slew of workers, leaves?

          For most companies in today's knowledge economy, the workforce is the supreme driver of performance. So what happens when a keystone worker, or a slew of workers, leaves?

          Since early 2001, American companies have laid off 3.6 million workers, according to consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. And let's not forget about retirements. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19% of baby boomers holding executive, administrative or managerial positions are expected to retire by 2008.

          The loss of so much knowledge and experience will be a huge blow to organisations.

          "When someone leaves or is laid off, it is, in effect, a disposal of assets," says Hamilton Beazley, chairman of the Strategic Leadership Group, a consultancy based in Washington, DC.

          Is there a way to retain employee knowledge even after the employees are gone? Beazley, coauthor of Continuity Management: Preserving Corporate Knowledge and Productivity When Employees Leave, thinks he has the solution. His continuity management programme is designed to capture and cultivate operational knowledge before an employee leaves the company.

          In a nutshell, employees complete questionnaires (derived from a master list of questions in 22 categories), describing what they do and how they do it. They update the fields regularly. The outcome is knowledge profiles that can be passed along to successive workers. "The knowledge profile is the DNA of the organisation," says Beazley.

          But will workers be willing to dissect themselves and their duties? Only 53% of US employees trust upper management, according to survey company International Survey Research. To spur employee participation, Beazley advocates a rewards and promotions programme.

          Some companies have instituted initiatives similar to continuity management. For instance, Pfizer's Retaining Knowledge Program focuses on people in strategic roles who are transferring or retiring. But Beazley says a more comprehensive effort is necessary: "[Pfizer's programme is] only for retiring and transferring employees, and in the information age, that's not sufficient."

          To retain their knowledge, he says, companies must institute a new daily requirement of employees.

          "What I haven't seen is a comprehensive, widespread approach," Beazley says. "[An initiative] that harvests [knowledge] routinely and regularly as part of doing the daily business."

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