Novak: Use knowledge management for succession planning

Agencies let too much knowledge walk out the door when senior managers retire

Experts have warned for years that agencies must have a dynamic strategy to deal with the impending wave of federal employee retirements. But the larger issue that is just starting to be addressed is less about refilling desks and more about retaining the knowledge that experienced workers take with them when they leave the government.

“The retirement wave is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Michael Novak, a senior analyst at the Internal Revenue Service’s Office of Research. “We must do a better job of capturing and retaining knowledge on a continual basis, not just six weeks before the employee walks out the door. We are not paying enough attention to these issues.”

Since the beginning of fiscal 2007, the amount of information technology experience leaving the government is striking. Marty Wagner, former deputy commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, spent 31 years in government before retiring in January. And Glenn Schlarman, the Office of Management and Budget’s branch chief of information policy and technology, retired in December 2006 after 34 years at OMB, the FBI and the Energy Department.

Those are just two examples of prominent government executives who have moved on to the private sector or retired, taking years of knowledge with them.

So how do GSA, OMB and other agencies ensure that people such as Wagner and Schlarman leave a deep understanding of their jobs and pass on their best practices, lessons learned and knowledge of the trade to the next generation of federal executives?

Some experts say the answer is to apply knowledge management techniques to succession planning to maintain and convey that critical knowledge.

Novak and other knowledge management specialists say that everyone in an agency, from its leader down through the management chain, must understand it’s not just the obligation of the chief human capital officer to make sure knowledge is retained. That’s the job of everyone in the organization.

“The human capital strategy must be aligned with the business strategy and the agency’s mission vision,” Novak said, speaking at the Knowledge Management Conference held April 5 in Washington, D.C. That conference is sponsored by FCW Events, which is owned by the 1105 Government Information Group, Federal Computer Week’s parent company.

“Agencies also have to align their organizational strategy with their learning strategy and their performance management strategy,” Novak said. “You must measure the success of all of them together.”

The Transportation Department’s Federal Highway Administration is doing just that. Deborah Gwaltney, knowledge exchange manager at the FHWA’s Office of Professional and Corporate Development, said the office combined the learning management and knowledge management offices because their missions were similar.

“Now if you need training, we can give the employee an e-learning course and either have them join a community of practice or start one,” Gwaltney said. “We are looking at ways to restructure our professional development program to address our workforce needs.”

The FHWA is also tackling its workforce issues through a test program to develop a post-high school curriculum for educating and bringing new people into the transportation industry.

“We are matching our workforce needs to current trends,” Gwaltney said. “We also have technical teams at five centers around the United States to offer training.”

Michelle Clonmell, a management consultant at Plexus Scientific, said agencies should look at short-term and long-term strategies for retaining knowledge. In the short term, managers must analyze the knowledge base of their workforce, delineate the specific knowledge carried by each employee and create ways of retaining that knowledge, Clonmell said.

Clonmell recommended developing process maps, decision-making frameworks and expertise locators to track the flow of information. “All of these [approaches] provide knowledge and information on a consistent basis,” she said.

But building a knowledge-retention program can’t be done overnight, she added. “It can take several years to establish.”
4 steps to retain institutional knowledgeMichelle Clonmell, a management consultant at Plexus Scientific, helps public- and private-sector organizations prepare for employee retirements or departures.

She recommends that agencies begin a knowledge retention program by:
  • Documenting stories to record best practices and lessons learned.
  • Having managers and other employees shadow experienced employees to understand and document their daily work.
  • Having experienced employees mentor inexperienced ones.
  • Creating communities of interest to share information.

— Jason Miller

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