Many industries are facing a critical, but mostly silent, issue. There’s a disparity in the workforce many of us seem to notice, but also fail to address the implications of.
Employees pick up both explicit and tacit knowledge during their years on the job; this includes how their position and its output play into the larger functions of a department and company operations. Employees with longer tenures have deep wealths of this information.
Oddly, this is where the issue we brought up earlier originates from. A significant portion of the workforce is aging, and their impending departures, coupled with their decades of experience in one role at an organization, create a new risk: the loss of institutional knowledge.
This is a frightening reality for business continuity and emergency management professionals. How can they capture this data and work it into their programs before other influences force their hands, allowing these long-time employees to walk away without documenting their knowledge?
Losing Institutional Knowledge
In 2014, Andrew Peña, then the Assistant Vice President of Human Resource Services at New Mexico State University, published an article on workforce.com that explored the impact of institutional knowledge. Specifically, he detailed what risks are sprouting with the impending departures of a specific generation of workers.
The risk is what we’ve already outlined: the failed transfer of their on-the-job knowledge.
In his article, Peña cites one study in particular from 2006 that took a deep-dive into one of this problem’s most affected industries: US electrical power generation and supply.
Let’s focus more on why this is such a heavy concern for utilities.
The services they provide are critical to daily life and operations. Not only do citizens and residents rely on the constant availability of utilities, businesses and institutions like hospitals do as well (see what the loss of power forces these institutions to consider in our recent blog about the public safety power shutoff by PG&E).
Sending off decades of knowledge alongside these workers is dangerous, and especially so in an environment rife with the possibility of business disruptions and emergency responses. The game of keeping the power on, or the water flowing, always starts unexpectedly. Without this information documented, the new guard will be forced to sink or swim, a disposition no one wants them to assume.
Sure, flexibility and adaptability are key skills all continuity and response professionals need, but these abilities should be safety nets, not tools needed for every event. Simply put, not handing the important response-related lessons and knowledge of the older workers to the new guard is reckless.
What cures are on the shelf for the potential loss of knowledge in this—or any—industry?
Peña mentions some of the front-running options in his article. Among those cures in implementing “mentor and trainee” type programs that allow the new professionals to learn from their predecessors. Job-sharing is another choice currently on the table, as is specialized job training.
The problem still bubbles up with these proposals, however. The critical information will still be siloed with the people who assume these roles.
Studies show that younger generations of workers spend less time at one position within an organization than older generations once did. Once the younger employees get the bug and decide to move, the same issue will resurface. These solutions, if they’re employed solely, will create a negative loop, where the knowledge transfer must happen at smaller time intervals, with more information evaporating with each closure of the loop. Eventually, the next newcomer will receive nothing of value, and the organization will be left in a dire position.
Documenting key job knowledge, duties, and functions has also been suggested. And, given the downsides the “in-person” options above, documentation is objectively a superior option. For continuity and emergency response professionals, documentation is a solid option as it easily weaves into plans.
But documentation doesn’t come without its faults, either. A pure paper documentation system (or any kind of platform that statically keeps this information) is also a risk. It’s easy to forget these documents exist, or that they may need updates as the nature of the role or business change. When an event strikes, the headaches will reemerge, just with different pain points.
The True Solution for Keeping Institutional Knowledge
Since we’ve exhausted the most common proposals, it’s easy to ask: Is there anything that will actually work?
Well, documentation does hit the chord we need. But it’s just one piece in the orchestra we need to get the institutional knowledge from the brains of the old guard to the new.
So let’s start with documentation. A system that enables the old and new guards to store data they can continue to pass on to whomever, whether that be BC managers or role successors. The information can’t be locked into a static document or system, however, to go stale.
A dynamic platform provides the most value for organizations in the middle of this “lost knowledge” crisis. A platform will capture the information just as documentation would, but technology can shoulder a lot of the burden that comes with keeping the information up-to-date.
For the early stages of these grand knowledge transfers, key features like notifications and reminders can facilitate the cataloging and updating of this information. This kind of environment will persistently prove its value as new personnel come into the role, make new observations, and shift the documented information to more accurately match the reality of the organization’s operations.
Technology, as everyone already knows, is a force multiplier. In this context, technology not only provides a solution, but also efficiencies in operations. Technology can make the interface between these transitioning roles and business continuity managers, for example, nearly seamless. The information that lives and changes in the space will be wholly accessible, and make an organization more resilient as a result.
What to Do
For many industries, the migration of key personnel towards retirement casts a dark shadow. But it’s easy to look past the initial intimidation of that shadow to see what solutions are available; many can prime an organization to tackle the “lost knowledge” crisis, but some also provide an edge for companies to neutralize this problem and avoid its persistence.
Naturally, some of those solutions are better than others. Find the one that works best for your operations, and start implementing it to keep your organization in the clear.