Passing on knowledge to the next generation is an absolute must and is likely happening somewhere in any large, technologically based organization. But new employees also possess a wealth of knowledge that can be shared to benefit the organization.
Northrop Grumman Marine Systems has implemented and adopted a model to transfer the knowledge new employees bring into the organization with them, dubbed New to Veteran Forums. New employees receive exposure, have the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and are given early career leadership opportunities that few organizations can provide. Veteran technologists and managers enjoy the chance to move the state of the art forward and to have enhanced interaction with their new employees.
There are two means to identify new employees who will participate: selection and volunteering. While the process is in its infancy, selection seems to be the most effective means to enlist a cross section of new employees. To start, it’s important to look for those who feel comfortable, are enthusiastic and have expressed frustration at the organization’s tools or willingness to change.
Length of service also is important. These employees need to have had enough time with the company to effectively compare and contrast their ideas with the current state and at the same time should still be considered new employees. Involving employees with six months to two years of service has worked successfully.
Finally, new employees come from a variety of sources. Some are new college graduates while others have significant work experience. Organizations should tap into the knowledge of both groups.
As this process is managed successfully, the desire to participate will grow and the number of volunteers will increase. But organizations should take pains to keep groups manageable. Ten is probably the maximum group size to work with at any one time, and in smaller organizations even fewer might be necessary.
Introductions make a strong first impression. New employees designated for inclusion, their managers, some senior technologists and the senior management team should be invited to the kickoff. This event should make the following points clear:
• The organization values the talents, education and experience of new employees.
• The organization is committed to continuous improvement, and new employees have the knowledge and ability to help.
• This is an opportunity to be heard, implement and lead, and it is an important part of new employees’ overall career development.
• New employees’ ideas will be evaluated based on potential costs and benefits.
• The implementation of the ideas that are selected will be led by the presenter.
Each of the new employees should be asked to create a presentation that discusses an idea, tool, technique or concept that isn’t currently used in the organization and would improve the organization’s output. That presentation should be short, about 10 minutes, and a template of no more than four PowerPoint slides should be prepared to support the presentation.
Management should not assume these new employees are overburdened or can’t fit this into their schedules. They should be given a week to prepare — two weeks at the most. Management should provide the structure for the presentations. The four PowerPoint slides ideally will:
1. Introduce the new idea, tool, technique or concept.
2. Contrast the new concept with the current state.
3. Describe how the presenter views this as an improvement.
4. Include a best-guess estimate of cost and schedule for implementation.
These ideas should then be presented to and evaluated by a respected committee of senior technologists and managers. That team should take about five to 10 minutes to ask questions about each presentation. That 15 to 20 minute total for each of the new employees to share their ideas is ideal. The result is that in a two-hour meeting, the team can hear six of the presentations, and 10 are doable in three hours. The process has to be rewarding for the new employees but manageable for the core team, also.
Following that meeting, the senior team should devote time to analyzing what they’ve heard and asking off-line follow-up and clarifying questions of the presenters.
The pitfall here is that the senior team might not maintain momentum and will allow other priorities to delay the follow-up effort. To do so will endanger the program and signal to the new generation of employees that the program is hollow. Organizations should avoid this at all costs. They should seek to demonstrate that they can be agile and responsive. Assign a program lead or manager to encourage and, if necessary, cajole everyone involved to keep up the pace. Slow follow-through can be de-motivating and disappointing.
The senior team’s role is now to evaluate what they’ve heard and provide a way forward for the good ideas. They can do a complex cost-benefit analysis or, more ideally, a simple four-square technique that plots their best assessment of where each idea fits on an easy-to-hard axis and a high-to-low value axis.
From that point on, focus the further analysis on those ideas that are in the easy and high-value quartile of the graph. In any event, prepare to share the analysis with all of the presenters. Seeing the process their managers and the senior technologists have used is a valuable lesson to these newcomers to the organization. The experience they’ll gain through seeing this will serve your organization well into the future.
Once this is done, meet again with the new employees who have presented the ideas. Explain which ideas the organization is going forward with and why. At least one member of the senior team should meet off-line with those whose ideas aren’t being implemented to explain the decision. Those whose ideas are going to be implemented should be named the implementation managers. Those whose ideas aren’t going to be implemented can be assigned to the teams responsible for the implementation. Some presented ideas are similar, which provides the opportunity to combine them and have new employees work jointly. Teaching collaboration isn’t bad either.
From here on, an organization should approach the project as it would any project being initiated in the organization. The presenter will be responsible for learning all of the organizations’ procedures regarding project proposals, implementation, metrics and management. A champion from the senior team should be assigned to help guide the new employees through what is likely their first project leadership assignment.
Finally, organizations should consider how often managers and senior technologists get to spend an hour or more of quality time getting to know and understand new employees in the company. That cross-functional interaction is a bonanza, uplifting to the veteran team and thrilling to the new employees.
This simple model married several of Northrop Grumman Marine Systems’ strategic goals — continuous improvement, knowledge transfer, employee engagement and leadership development — into a single program with immense payback. The results have ranged from the use of new technologies to process changes and better communication models.
Each selected project represents an additional vehicle for continuous improvement. The evidence of enhanced workforce engagement is retention, and that is at an all-time high. Knowledge transfer is occurring; new employees are learning the organization’s systems and processes, and the organization is learning to use new tools and techniques.