Many businesses are experiencing a significant and ongoing loss of some of their most tenured, and knowledgeable, employees. Until 2014, Baby Boomers were the largest generational cohort in US history, and still make up approximately 41% of the US workforce. Today, these employees are retiring at a rate of around 10,000 a day, and often taking their accumulated business knowledge with them. That’s a frightening prospect when you think in terms of organizational and industry-wide brain drain.
In the business world, brain drain is, broadly speaking, the loss of institutional knowledge from an organization when a highly skilled or educated employee leaves for another job or retires. For example, imagine a customer interacts primarily with one person at a company. If that person retires, and there is no process in place to capture and transfer their relevant knowledge to others in the organization, they will take their accumulated knowledge about that client with them. This makes it harder for the company to successfully provide services to that client going forward, and can ultimately affect profitability.
In other cases, brain drain leads to the loss of hard to replace technical knowledge or process-based skills. A highly skilled procurement manager might know every one of the 500+ tasks they can perform in their organization’s SAP procurement module. If that person retires, their replacement will likely take a long time – possibly years – to gain the same proficiency with the application, which helps them execute their core job functions, and helps the company track procurement activities and financial transactions. Until that same level of competency is achieved, the replacement employee’s lower proficiency and efficiency in the application will have a negative impact on the company. While this is no fault of the employee, it still is a net negative for the company.
Fortunately, you can take steps that will limit brain drain in your own organization.
A successful approach for avoiding brain drain is one that’s been around for ages: mentoring programs.
There isn’t a standard-issue approach for mentoring. Some companies make it a formal program, while others encourage it as an informal practice. In companies without either, more tenured employees will often take greener employees under their wing.
In mentoring relationships, mentors actively transfer knowledge to mentees, which helps to retain institutional knowledge that would have otherwise been lost when the mentor left the organization.
Mentoring programs also provide other benefits, such as:
- Reducing employee turnover
- Providing management and technical training
- Reducing overall training time
While the company might lose a little productivity from the mentor, it’s more than made up for in the retention of institutional knowledge, which is highly valuable.
A fairly common solution to reduce brain drain is the knowledge base. A knowledge base is like an encyclopedia focused on a specific organization, full of critical business information and processes. This could include anything from hard skills, like how to successfully complete a billing transaction in an application, to soft skills, like how to overcome objections as part of a sales conversation.
To help reduce the effects of brain drain, a company needs to marry an effective process for capturing knowledge from employees nearing retirement with knowledge base software. This way, the knowledge base serves as a repository for institutional knowledge, built in part by the organization’s most knowledgeable employees. This means even if someone retires, their contribution to the knowledge base is still available to the company and its employees in perpetuity.
A knowledge base is also searchable, so the information stored there can be accessed by someone who has a general idea of what they are looking for, but might not know exactly what it is called or where to find it.
Contextual Guidance Tools
A newer approach for stemming the tide of brain drain is the use of contextual guidance tools. These tools provide support to employees in the flow of work, instead of requiring them to stop what they are doing and go to another resource, like a knowledge base, to look for an answer. By providing the necessary information to solve a problem based on an employee’s context – their role, the application they are working in, and the task they are doing – contextual guidance tools accelerate employee productivity while maintaining and sharing institutional knowledge.
Some contextual guidance tools even allow for subject matter experts – usually some of the most tenured employees in an organization – to author job aids and training content that is delivered via a contextual guidance tool. This helps keep important knowledge within the company, further preventing brain drain.
Additionally, the best contextual guidance tools help Learning and Development professionals, and application subject matter experts, quickly create and edit content, and deploy content to an entire user base. They also provide an analytics engine that helps admins understand what content is being used by employees, how often that content is being used, and how employees are performing over time in target applications.
Another tactic that some companies use is flexible, or phased, retirement. With phased retirement programs, a person stays on with the company at a reduced workload.
For example, a company might let an employee with critical knowledge reduce their workload to six hours a day, three days a week. That keeps them and their knowledge accessible to the company and its less-seasoned employees. At the same time, it lets them enjoy some of the benefits of semi-retirement.
Another approach involves a slow reduction of working hours over time. The employee steps down their total hours worked over the course of a few years. Again, this keeps their knowledge available while you onboard new employees or train a replacement.
Someone in a phased retirement program is also an ideal candidate to serve as a mentor, or to generate learning content for a contextual guidance system. This intentional focus on knowledge retention can yield significant dividends for organizations trying to limit knowledge lost to brain drain through retirement.
Parting Thoughts on Avoiding Retirement Brain Drain
The threat of brain drain from baby boomer retirement is very real for companies in every industry. No amount of classroom training or webinar participation can truly replace decades of accumulated experience. Fortunately, you do have some viable options for limiting the brain drain at your company.
You can create a formal or informal mentoring program at your company. Let seasoned employees transfer as much knowledge as they can into younger employees.
Create a knowledge base where employees document important business processes they create or modify, and that is searchable by members of the organization.
Invest in contextual guidance tools. These help employees solve problems in the flow of work, instead of forcing them to interrupt their core job functions to go look for solutions on an intranet, a help portal, or by calling the help desk.
Create a phased retirement program. These programs help keep critical knowledge in-house while allowing employees who are interested in doing so gradually step down their hours of employment.
Reducing brain drain and retaining critical institutional knowledge, is an important business strategy that has far reaching implications. Make sure you consider all options available, and select the one that provides the greatest impact for your organization.