T3-5 Reducing Knowledge Loss When Experienced Staff Resigns/Retires

Here are some techniques my colleagues and I have advised, tried and/or monitored to reduce knowledge loss when experienced staff is resigning/retiring:

  • Over a period of several months, the retiring staff confers with his understudy whenever the former makes an important or critical decision or problem solving episode. He explains the situation, what factors he looks at, what are the risks, and why he chose the solution. In other words, the coaching process is focused only on important decision-making episodes.
  • For a very busy executive about to retire, ask few but high-value questions. For example, we asked an executive who was centrally responsible for conceptualizing and overseeing a unique program: “After doing this program several times, what advice will you offer a new executive who will take over the program? Let us say that you have only 10 minutes available to provide this advice.” The 10-minutes limit forces the executive to “skim off the cream” and thus provide the most high-value advice culled from his long experience.
  • One difference between an experienced staff and a neophyte is that the former has much tacit knowledge about what could go wrong in a particular activity, business process or project. Interview the retiring staff or ask him to list the risk factors involved, and the corresponding signs (we use the terms “pink flags” or “red flags” to differentiate between levels of probability and seriousness of a risk) that he looks for to check if the risk seems to be materializing.
  • Ask the resigning/retiring staff to collect and provide you with his work templates. Turn this over to the understudy or replacement, who must be able to ask the retiring staff questions whenever the manner of use of any template is not clear to her. This technique presupposes that members of the organization is aware of the value of, and can recognize work templates and other reusable knowledge objects/products.
  • Request the retiring staff if he or she can be occasionally consulted by phone after retirement.
  • Do not call a project “harvesting knowledge of retiring staff.” Who wants to be “harvested”? This was odious title of an actual project in one organization and the project did not fly. “Knowledge turnover” or “knowledge transfer” or “understudy program” sounds better. The other reason for failure is that the actions called for on the part of the resigning/retiring staff were not part of the terms/contract of employment of the staff. Therefore the next tip is:
  • Insert “knowledge turnover” provisions into the employment contract of knowledge workers.
  • Form an informal “consultants pool” consisting of retirees in a specific area of work and set up agreed protocols for consulting members of the pool on problems in their specific area of specialization.
  • If a work process is relatively specific, predictable or uniform, encourage a retiring experienced staff to accept outsourcing jobs after his retirement. In one factory, the owner even sells the associated equipment at a much reduced price.
  • If the retiring staff is a business development officer, an account executive or a marketing officer with personal and crucial relationships with business partners or clients, he introduces his understudy or replacement to the business partners/clients (and their secretaries or assistants), brings her to business and social events where the business partner/client will be met and briefs her on the specific and unique personality characteristics, requirements and expectations of each business partner/client.
  • Adopt a company policy that replacements must be hired or identified at least 30 days before resignation or retirement, and corresponding company procedures for knowldge transfer during that period.

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