Brain drain is a knowledge transfer problem that is already a predicament in many organizations, and it will only escalate as members of the baby boomer generation reach 65 and retire.
People who can fill technical jobs are in critically short supply. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States needs 135,000 new computer professionals a year, but U.S. universities are producing only 49,000 computer science graduates annually. The agency also predicts the need for science and engineering graduates will grow 26 percent to 1.25 million by next year, but the number of graduates in those fields has remained relatively flat for two decades. Since baby boomers make up 26 percent of the IT workforce, according to a 2010 report from TekSystems, learning leaders must identify high-achieving technical people within their organizations who may soon leave the workforce and make sure they preserve and share their experience and knowledge through the learning delivery strategies that best suit the company.
“Most organizations don’t even bother to try to capture the knowledge of some of their best employees before they leave,” said William Rothwell, professor of learning and performance at Pennsylvania State University and president of Rothwell & Associates. “A recent Accenture study showed that fewer than 40 percent of U.S. companies make any effort at all in even asking people to write down some ideas for their successor about what they have learned. A sure sign that a company didn’t do this right is when they let somebody retire and then they have to call them back for full-time employment. In some cases, they pay them a nice, big severance package and then still call them back because they were so lacking in awareness of the type of knowledge that person walked out the door with and how ill-prepared the organization is to do without it.”
According to Rothwell, many companies have invested heavily in knowledge management software — a solution that has proved inconvenient and unproductive. In his book Invaluable Knowledge: Securing Your Company’s Technical Expertise, Rothwell discusses 25 possible ways to transfer knowledge, many through learning and development. Some solutions do require software solutions, but most are low-tech.
Rothwell described the model organizations should use to engage in knowledge transfer and deliver information to the entire workforce: “Step one is getting a group of senior leaders to regard this as an issue that is worth spending time, money and effort to solve. Secondarily, leaders must start to identify what the work processes of the organization are and which ones are most critical to the company’s competitive advantage. They should isolate those. The next step is looking at who their internal experts are on those processes. Once they’ve identified those people, they need to research the risk of losing those people and zero in on the type of knowledge they want to capture and transfer. Once we know that, then we can make some decisions on transfer and delivery methods, whether that’s training, online databases, informal storytelling from the old timers, all the way up to more high-tech solutions like expert systems.”
Before baby boomers retire or high potentials leave an organization, their knowledge must be retained and passed on to current employees, especially their successors, in whatever learning delivery method best suits the company’s goals and strategy before knowledge loss permeates the organization.
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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