Boomers have a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence

Vet­er­ans must pass along in­sti­tu­tional knowl­edge to younger work­ers

The Hamilton Spectator - - YOUNG AT HEART - REX HUPPKE CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

As mem­bers of the baby-boom gen­er­a­tion con­tinue to self­ishly re­tire, waltz­ing off to en­gage in ridicu­lous ac­tiv­i­ties such as “en­joy­ing life” and “re­lax­ing,” the rest of us are left with the drudgery of work and, in many cases, a no­table lack of in­sti­tu­tional knowl­edge.

Ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, 10,000 baby boomers are reach­ing age 65 each day. While it’s been on the hori­zon for years, the re­al­ity of the boomer brain drain is still catch­ing com­pa­nies off guard, mak­ing “knowl­edge trans­fer” the buzz­word du jour.

Be­fore veteran work­ers depart, it’s cru­cial they pass along not just a rough out­line of how they do their jobs or a fil­ing cab­i­net stuffed with old man­u­als and re­ports but some of the deeper knowl­edge gained from years of ex­pe­ri­ence.

It’s some­thing Dorothy Leonard, a pro­fes­sor of busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion at Har­vard Busi­ness School and co­founder of the con­sult­ing firm Leonard-Bar­ton Group, calls “tacit knowl­edge.”

“There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween in­for­ma­tion and knowl­edge,” Leonard said. “In­for­ma­tion is what you can get off of Google and what you can get from repos­i­to­ries. Knowl­edge, I would ar­gue, is par­tially based on ex­pe­ri­ence. So what I mean by tacit knowl­edge is stuff in your head that’s never been writ­ten down, never been doc­u­mented. Maybe you’ve never even ar­tic­u­lated it.”

That’s why com­pa­nies of­ten fail to re­tain that deeper va­ri­ety of knowl­edge once a long­time em­ployee re­tires - they don’t think to look for it, and it’s not some­thing a per­son writes in his or her carry-over note be­fore rac­ing out the door for the last time.

“Ex­perts with a large ex­pe­ri­ence base have a sys­tem per­spec­tive,” Leonard said. “They can look at some­thing and say: ‘That’s go­ing to af­fect X, Y and Z down the road.’ It could be a doc­tor who says:‘This eye prob­lem is ac­tu­ally linked to your im­mune sys­tem.’ They have a sense of what in­ter­acts with what. That comes with ex­pe­ri­ence, but some of it can be passed on.” One of the means of trans­fer­ring that form of knowl­edge is some­thing Leonard calls “mini ex­pe­ri­ences.”

She told me about an ex­pe­ri­enced de­signer at a de­fence con­trac­tor that makes and as­sem­bles mis­siles who knew how im­por­tant it was for de­sign engi­neers to un­der­stand the assem­bly process. “So this ex­pert took (the per­son he was men­tor­ing) to the end of the assem­bly line on the assem­bly floor where a tech­ni­cian was giv­ing the fi­nal test,” Leonard said. “There you can see all the mis­takes that can oc­cur when you put to­gether in­di­vid­u­ally as­sem­bled com­po­nents.”

It was a small men­tor­ing mo­ment, but: “The way our brain works, we at­tach new ex­pe­ri­ences to some­thing that’s al­ready there. Now that new en­gi­neer not only has some new in­sights but a com­pre­hen­sion of the need to think about the assem­bly when de­sign­ing. And to that ex­pe­ri­ence he can at­tach new ex­pe­ri­ences. It cre­ates re­cep­tors in our brain.”

Duke En­ergy Nu­clear in North Carolina has 6,000 work­ers in its nu­clear divi­sion, and half of them are el­i­gi­ble to re­tire in the next five years. The com­pany as­sessed its knowl­edge trans­fer tools - ev­ery­thing from ba­sic suc­ces­sion plan­ning to men­tor­ing - and found gaps in what work­ers ben­e­fited from and what was be­ing used.

“An ap­proach we’ve taken re­cently is based on the ques­tion, ‘What knowl­edge do you want to re­tain?’” said Lee Causey, a se­nior nu­clear en­gi­neer. “How do you break it down? At the de­part­men­tal level, we’ve reached out to dif­fer­ent man­agers and said: ‘What are the crit­i­cal skills that your team per­forms?’ Next you look at how many peo­ple are fully com­pe­tent at that, and how many peo­ple are in de­vel­op­ment or maybe not quite there. That way you can iden­tify gaps and ad­dress them.”

In work­ing on knowl­edge trans­fer at his com­pany, Causey has learned the im­por­tance of hav­ing open lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween younger work­ers and vet­er­ans. Put sim­ply, the greener em­ploy­ees can’t feel afraid to ad­mit that there’s some­thing they don’t know, and the vet­er­ans need to be will­ing to share what they do know.

“The cul­tural shift I see is how will­ing we are to iden­tify our knowl­edge gaps,” he said. “I’m see­ing more in­di­vid­ual con­trib­u­tors come to their man­agers and say: ‘I’d like to im­prove my skills in this arena,’ or ‘I’d like to work with this ex­pert in our group.’ That’s a big change. We come in as to­tal hot­shots, we’ve got ev­ery­thing fig­ured out … It’s hard to ad­mit that I don’t know some­thing. But I’m see­ing a shift in that among young em­ploy­ees.”

There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween in­for­ma­tion and knowl­edge – knowl­edge is based off of the ex­pe­ri­ence boomers have.

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