When you can't keep the people, keep their knowledge
13 July 2009 8:49am
Every employee will ultimately leave their organisation, but there's no reason why their knowledge has to walk out the door with them, says retention expert Lisa Halloran.
Although HR practitioners are primarily concerned with keeping people in an organisation, it's important to remember that each one will leave eventually - "whether they resign, retire or the bus hits them" - and to take steps beforehand to reduce the risk of losing their knowledge, she says.
HR should particularly focus on keeping the knowledge of high-value employees, who Halloran refers to as "bombs" (because "when they go off, they cause a lot of damage"), as these are the workers whose unplanned departure can have the worst impact on an organisation.
"It's about risk reduction, and risk management."
Halloran, the director of Retention Partners, says there are a number of initiatives that help employers store the knowledge of their workforce while they are still employed so it can be used after they've left, including:
Documentation - where a job is primarily process-related - that is, it involves "steps" - the steps should be documented where possible in a way that new employees will find easy to follow. "To document things or have process manuals is brilliant if the same thing happens over and over again."
Halloran cautions that "not many people like documenting what they do", so employers should consider engaging someone to follow the worker around and record their activities. That job is specifically suited to science-based people and linear thinkers who understand the value of processes, she says.
Shadowing - in many cases, an employee's value to an organisation lies not in the process they use but their innate skills and the strength of relationships that they build up over time.
"Obviously this doesn't lend itself to any form of documentation at all, but the organisation is heavily exposed if they lose that person - they could lose a major client," Halloran says.
Organisations that rely heavily on relationships should have a shadowing arrangement, she says, where "if someone's going to a major meeting with a client, they have to take another person with them". Employers should ensure clients regularly interact with more than one representative and "get to know some of the faces" of the organisation, if not through business meetings then less formal lunches.
Video - this idea came from a Retention Partners employee whose immigrant grandmother wanted to pass on recipes that had never been written down. As she didn't know the exact amount of ingredients required (it was more "a pinch of this, a dash of that"), she used video to record her putting the recipes together.
Halloran says a large open-cut mining company used this technique on a rare occasion when a massive, multi-million-dollar piece of equipment fell into a pit. The organisation set up at least 30 cameras at the site to record various attempts to retrieve the machinery over a period of weeks so that the techniques used could be viewed again in the event of a repeat incident.
It also uses video to record tasks performed by people with specific knowledge so that when the need arises, other employees know what to do, she adds.
"Where a person owns a particular piece of knowledge that can be filmed, [employers should] create a store of knowledge relating to that process."
Promotion criteria - some organisations ensure they retain knowledge and reduce their recruitment costs by requiring managers to develop their subordinates.
"The deal is you will never get promoted unless at least two people behind you could stand up into your job. It changes the dynamics dramatically so that rather than saying 'I'm not going to help these people because they're my future competitors', they say 'I'm never going to be freed from this job unless I can put up a couple of people up to the recruitment process who stand a pretty good chance'," Halloran says.
It might be that the replacement will need six months' more development and training to step into the role of an exiting manager, but this reduces the impact to their organisation of losing their knowledge in its entirety, she says.
"Get people coming up through the organisation to add more value as they're coming through. Replacements might need more development, more training, and more time, but you're in a better position to fill that gap than if you just let managers go without grooming the people behind them. Nobody's got enough 'fat' to have a little 2IC, but it makes managers deliberately aware of how they manage their assets so that they've got people to fill their shoes."
Post-employment employment - when high-value employees leave to work for another organisation, employers should strike a rate to "buy them back", Halloran says, for example for five hours a month over a six-month period.
"Whatever that rate is, the benefit is going to be a lot better. Get them to have lunch with their replacement and talk to them about 'XYZ'. It extends access to that person's knowledge if you haven't taken steps to secure it before they go."
"Council of elders" - employers facing high retirement rates in the coming years should consider forming a "council of elders" - "retirees who, for instance, know what happened in 1974 and have really great depth of knowledge", Halloran says.
"Bring them back in formally, once a month, or get them to help out on a phone call, or have an ad hoc lunch with up and coming youngsters, all on very strict criteria," she recommends.
"You might have to pay for fantastic lunch once a month or whatever it may be, but it's a low cost to keep that information."
Elite cohorts - where the value of retiring employees' knowledge is great, employers can recognise them in other ways that foster its retention, Halloran says.
She cites the example of a shipping company that was desperate to retain the skills of its skippers and masters - people who knew their knowledge was powerful and earned through years of very hard work, and were reluctant to pass it on - who were approaching retirement.
The global organisation invented the "master mentor" program, which at any point in time has just five "masters" who must each take two people under their wing. There are strict criteria around the skills that must be passed on and the timeframe for doing it, and the masters are recognised in return with photos in the foyers of all the company's offices; first-class flights to Scandinavia for the annual board meeting; and trips to New York for lunch with the chairman.
"Effectively the organisation is bowing down before the immense skill that these men have, and in return they're saying 'pay back now'. It's quite a wonderful way of saying to these people, 'your skills are so important and we're going to celebrate and recognise that, and this is the way we're going to do it', rather than saying, 'write down everything you know, or else'.
"It's not low-cost, but certainly compared to loss of that enormous depth of knowledge, it's essential."
Halloran says it's "risk management 101" that if employees are highly valued for their contribution they should be retained, but failing that, it is their knowledge that must be kept.
"In HR everyone is so swamped with the immediacies of life that it sometimes takes a little bit of a shake-up to stand back and have a look at some of these bigger picture ideas," she says, but adds that initiatives can be implemented "virtually instantly to protect your organisation and lower your recruitment costs".
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