Knowledge retention helps agencies retain employees' expertise

Here are a few pointers for preserving enterprise know-how during baby boomer retirements

Officials at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) were early to recognize the effects of increasing workforce retirements.

Ten years ago, TVA concluded that 30 percent of its workforce, about 4,000 employees, could retire in five years. With 11 coal-burning plants, 29 hydroelectric dams and three nuclear power plants among other power generation facilities, the authority faced expensive and lengthy training programs to prepare the next generation of plant operators. Efficiency and safety could be compromised as new employees came up-to-speed. “We were faced with a big bubble of folks about to leave, folks who built the company,” said Jerry Landon, TVA program manager for talent assessment.

To counter the trend, TVA started a program to tap the on-the-job experience of workers nearing retirement age. Since then, the agency has assessed the expertise of more than 2,000 positions and developed ways to preserve and transfer the knowledge of subject-matter experts. Those methods range from old-fashioned mentoring to recording expertise via Web 2.0 tools.

Those programs can be categorized as knowledge retention, a field that seeks to capture workplace wisdom and provide mechanisms for sharing. Landon said TVA’s retention program has reduced the times for initial training and post-training mastery of skills for new employees, while maintaining the organization’s safety levels.

Until now, knowledge retention programs have been rare in government. Jay Liebowitz, professor at Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School and author of "Knowledge Retention: Strategies and Solutions," said surveys that he and other researchers have undertaken consistently show that 80 percent of organizations, including public-sector entities, lack a formal knowledge retention strategy.

However, retirement eligibility rates and the government's interest in increased information sharing are changing that. NASA and the Agriculture Department have already joined TVA with their own knowledge-retention programs.

Meanwhile, a number of early stage projects at other agencies will ramp up in the next year, said Jim Lee, knowledge management practice leader at APQC, a nonprofit organization that focuses on process and performance improvement.

To understand how knowledge retention works, it's helpful to understand a few guiding principles.

Identify the knowledge most at risk of disappearing and make it top priority 

Experienced employees know a lot of things, but a full brain dump probably isn’t the way to go. A sharp focus helps keep knowledge retention programs manageable.

TVA officials narrow their search of knowledge to retain what is critical and undocumented — knowledge that exists in people’s heads rather than in procedure manuals and training programs. Knowledge retention experts refer to the former as tacit knowledge and the latter as explicit knowledge.

In one knowledge retention experiment, TVA found that even specialized knowledge, such as nuclear plant operations, isn’t necessarily rare. Landon said TVA discovered a lot of redundant knowledge among nuclear engineers, but certain areas, such as expertise on the corrosive effects of river water on pipes, were less abundant. That’s the type of knowledge worth the effort to retain.

“You don’t necessarily need to build the entire encyclopedia,” Landon said of knowledge retention programs. “What we do need is to find a few key pages and make sure we don’t lose those.”

Get help from experts

James Alexander, internal organization development consultant at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, points out that knowledge retention initiatives are relatively new to government agencies. He emphasized the importance of using outside specialists to help establish programs.

In FSIS case, the agency hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to get its now 18-month-old program off the ground. The consulting firm provided its knowledge management methodology, which details a step-by-step process for developing a knowledge retention strategy. The agency also tapped the Knowledge Management Institute to train FSIS leadership on the essentials of the discipline.

“We made sure we were able to partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers and other organizations so we weren’t going blindly forward with this,” Alexander said.

Alexander also cited the backing of senior leadership as a critical factor in moving forward with knowledge retention. A knowledge retention program represents change, and change induces resistance. So it's important to get the backing of senior management to help overcome that resistance.

Senior leaders need to "understand it is a change, and change management takes time and resources,” Alexander said. “Our leadership has understood that.”

Cultivate learning communities

Some agencies find using communities of practice to be an effective way to gain knowledge from employees and share it in the organization.

APQC’s Lee said communities of practice, or COPs, are a binding infrastructure for people interested in a particular area of knowledge.

Such groups bring together experts and novices, creating a learning environment. A COPs’s members might meet online by using Web-based tools and services. However, Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and co-chairwoman of the Federal Knowledge Management Working Group, suggested agencies also conduct face-to-face meetings.

“It can’t all be done electronically,” she said, adding that technology can work but not as well as a mixed approach.

At JPL, community groups might meet in-person quarterly, sometime in conjunction with a conference, Holm said. Each COP has a part-time facilitator who attends every face-to-face gathering and captures the content shared.

The means of capture vary. For example, a discussion of why a particular test failed could land in NASA’s lessons learned information system. But much of the information from meetings ends up as online posts in wikis and blogs.

Those resources are made available through COP Web portals. Along with electronic records of in-person meetings, segments of electronic meetings also reside on the portal, Holm said.

Offer incentives for participating

The success of a knowledge retention program depends on the willingness of employees to contribute. Just because an agency has the latest Web 2.0 tools or collaboration platforms doesn’t mean employees will automatically exchange knowledge.

“If you build it, they won’t necessarily come,” Lee said. “If you put out a collaboration space on [Microsoft’s] SharePoint and think people will naturally start to share, you will be disappointed.”

Organizations must use reward and recognition programs to make contributions happen.

“You need to have appropriate mechanisms in place to encourage people to do the knowledge retention and transfer activities,” Liebowitz said.

Some organizations, such as the World Bank, make learning and knowledge-sharing proficiencies a part of an employee’s annual performance review. Incentives of this type provide extrinsic motivation — rewards — but organizations need to emphasize intrinsic motivators — recognition — that are more lasting, Liebowitz said.

To this end, agencies can recognize people for their contributions to knowledge retention, Liebowitz said, such as posting testimonials of how someone’s lesson learned helped them in their work.

Don’t set the program and forget it

After employees begin to participate in a knowledge retention program, they need a sense of direction. Building a community requires more than rounding up participants and leaving them to their own devices. Holm recommended facilitating discussions in the community.

“You need to feed the community with questions at times,” she said.

For example, a group of engineers could be asked about the best conferences to attend or the seminal works in a particular engineering field.

“The conversations around the questions actually bring out the kind of tacit knowledge that people don’t even think of sharing,” Holm said.

Another way to rally the community is to give members specific tasks. Holm said a group could be asked to review a particular policy and provide feedback or assess a technical standard up for adoption.

Don’t rely on one approach

“You have to look at balanced approaches,” Holm said. “Relying on mentorship or storytelling is not sufficient. Using technology is not sufficient.”

Holm said people teach and learn from one another in different ways, so a one-size-fits all approach isn't likely to succeed.

Also, using a range of technology-based approaches might be appropriate.

“There is no one technological solution,” TVA’s Landon said, noting that the agency’s tools include wikis and a lessons learned database.

Landon said the key issue is to focus on users and when and where they need information. For mobile employees, serving enterprise knowledge on a Global Positioning System unit or handheld computing device will prove more effective than keeping information on an intranet.

Don’t start too late

Agencies that rely on exit interviews for knowledge retention are starting far too late.

Knowledge management practitioners said agencies should start talking to employees at least two years before retirement as opposed to two weeks before they head for the door. Spending two hours with a veteran employee a few days before retirement “hardly taps into even the slightest bit of her accumulated knowledge,” APQC’s Lee said.

Ideally, knowledge retention should begin at the beginning, Liebowitz said.

“If an employee spent 20, 30, 40 years in a particular position, it’s hard to cull out some of the important material they might have learned early on,” he said. “My feeling is that knowledge retention and transfer should really begin at day one of the employee’s lifespan at the organization.”

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