Knowledge Management
September 1, 2020

Fighting against the brain drain in companies with experience

The term “knowledge transfer” is not a particularly nice one in itself. It suggests a very technical process that transports data from A to B.

But, the transfer of knowledge is a very human experience.

Someone who has worked for more than 40 years has a deep well of expertise and life experience to draw from. If this person retires or changes jobs, they take this knowledge with them. Preventing this or enabling employees to share this knowledge is extremely important.

Room for improvement in knowledge transfer

Especially in times of digitalization and globalization, where the world is spinning faster and striving for growth, it is important to preserve and carefully pass on what has been stored in analog form. However, according to Oxford Economics’ "Workforce 2020" study, less than 50 percent of companies cultivate such an open knowledge transfer culture. 

This is a situation where companies stand in their own way.

Anyone who underestimates the importance of knowledge management in their company risks having expertise unnecessarily hidden by people who fear losing power which delays knowledge transfer. This wastes both time and money. In the worst case, as a result, they are overtaken by the competition

On the other hand, those who look and actively participate in the knowledge management design process ensures that their company will remain agile. But how can companies secure the knowledge of their employees? With these five steps: 

1. Create teams age-diverse teams

Knowledge between younger and older people will flow back and forth and enrich processes, products, and work itself. The concept of reverse mentoring is particularly popular here. Companies such as IBM, Bosch, Henkel or Lufthansa swear by it, but it is also suitable for SMEs.

Here, younger employees coach older ones in areas such as digitalisation. Moderated workshops, tandem working models, or design thinking have also proved successful.

What is the potential of age-diverse teams?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "The exciting thing about age-diverse teams is the different approaches to tackling a problem. While younger team members first brainstorm ideas and try out many solutions, employees with a lot of professional experience know which processes are needed for implementation, which parts - and people - have to be involved within a system for it to be successful, how to maintain quality standards, what risks there are, and in general how to avoid serious mistakes.”

What mistakes can organizations make here?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: “The prerequisite to ensure that the added value of intergenerational teams is realized is a great deal of willingness among team members to learn, be open, and respect one another. Without these basic requirements, no cooperation will succeed and the opinions of young and old run the risk of being blocked. For example: If one person insists that this is the way it has always been done and the other person responds with disparaging comments that older people simply do not understand new developments and technologies. This kind of interaction has no value for anyone."

2. Create generation management

Here we should take a look at what they’re doing in Japan. The country is considered a pioneer when it comes to the successful transfer of knowledge between generations. The secret: there are no top-down orders, it is simply part of the work mentality of the employees.

In Europe we (still) think differently. Here, setting up and exemplifying such a culture is the boss’ job. If management does not believe in the power of diversity, it won’t happen. Leading diverse teams requires conviction, dedication, and commitment. This is the only way to get the best out of all generations.

What are the challenges in setting up generation management?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "One challenge with diversity is that, on the one hand, too much attention is paid to demographic diversity (age, origin, gender, etc.) and people try to tick all the checkboxes - without questioning to what extent and whether a team can also use different approaches ("Diversity of Thought"). Or vice versa: A team is created that is too diverse and is blocked and its ability to act is slowed down because of too many different approaches. This is the case with teams of the same age and with teams that span generations."

A very special point to consider when young and old work together is the awareness of the shift in power dynamics based on technical knowledge.

In the current economy, digital skills such as programming skills are extremely valued, while social or analog skills are severely devalued. This results in a tension between older employees, who may have less technical know-how but have for example very strong emotional intelligence and strategic skills.

Younger employees, who are very tech-savvy and are therefore celebrated as "heroes" in many industries, receive excessive attention, appreciation, and power in organisations.

The best methods to counteract a power struggle here are tandem work, reverse mentoring, or awareness workshops.”

How does generation management fail?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "If a common goal and similar values are missing in the team, diversity will not work. The same applies if one or more egos stand in the way of open communication and respect."

3. The mindset of employees is the key to successful knowledge transfer

Do the employees like their work? Do they identify with their role in the company? Are they willing to help colleagues? These are boring questions - but this is the only way to get them excited about sharing their knowledge.

This also saves companies time and money. According to the "Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report 2018" from the Panopto video platform, new employees spend a full 12.7 hours a week just asking questions.

28 hours a month are wasted due to unproductivity for new employees. On average, they wait 5.1 hours for a suitable answer from their colleagues due to a lack of knowledge transfer, and a further 6 hours are wasted as a result of double completion of tasks.

Also interesting: the 1001 respondents for this study are of the opinion that 42 percent of the knowledge in a job is "unique" - i.e. linked to a specific person. If this person leaves, the 42 percent leaves with them.

How do you nurture satisfied employees who care about the well-being of the company?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "I am a fan of Purpose, People, Product, Profit - in that order! In the future, companies will not survive without purpose and cooperative teamwork. This must be rooted in the DNA of every company. And, contrary to popular opinion, this is something not only millennials want but older employees want as well; to work beyond retirement age and actively shape the future for a company they believe in."

Which mistakes should bosses avoid here?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "The biggest mistake is to 1. ignore knowledge transfer completely, 2. not make the time and budget available and 3. think that it is not a management issue. We see the most success when the topic is not driven by personnel managers but by management. Which method is used to enable knowledge transfer - tandem work, mentoring, moderated handover discussions, FAQ collection or in-house wiki - is less relevant."

4. Create an appreciative off-boarding strategy

Only 25 percent of HR managers provide proper support to their employees when they retire. In order to keep the knowledge that has been built up in the company, plans should be made at an early stage as to when and how this should be done.

Maybe the employees would like to continue working? Maybe they would be available to the company as mentors or coaches?

One of the outgoing vice presidents of General Motors is said to have worked on the handover with his successor for a whole six months before his retirement. Another vice president is still on the GM payroll - as an advisor.

How can companies better support the transition to retirement and show appreciation?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "First of all, you need an understanding of the phases people go through when they retire. There are the so-called "Five Stages of Retirement", which we have described with our recommendations."

What's the biggest no-go?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "The most important thing is to treat colleagues with respect until the end of their official working hours. Anyone who is discriminated against years before retirement, who is not given any opportunities for further training and who is no longer recognised, even on a human level, and is literally 'put on the backburner', will not want to work for their company any longer than they have to or pass on their expertise and experience to young people.

We have also heard from companies that older employees do not want to document and pass on their knowledge.

This is primarily because these senior experts are afraid of being perceived as worthless and being replaced by younger ones. This can be consciously countered by preparing for retirement together with the employees and discussing possibilities for their return".

5. Stay in touch

A useful tool for keeping knowledge in the company is a dedicated Senior Expert Pool. Not only does this maintain and pass on knowledge, it also improves the financial situation of retired employees. It also saves the company a lot of money.

The consulting firm MERCER has calculated that a manufacturing company with 4,500 employees loses about half a million a year due to a lack of knowledge transfer from its older employees. Added to this is around 2.7 million euros - the budgeted costs for new hires.

All this could be avoided if around 120 retired employees were to continue working for 20 to 30 hours a week.

How can knowledge transfer using technology succeed?

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "The main advantage of managing an alumni pool of senior experts using software is speed. We know from large corporations that they can fill their vacancies within two days - this is a huge savings in time and money compared to companies that organize their Senior Experts Pool with email lists in the HR department.

The concerns about data management and data protection (GDPR) are addressed with an online system as Senior Experts will be able to update and delete their profiles by themselves. And finally, there is also the possibility of setting up a kind of Wiki or Q&A system. This helps a lot in preserving knowledge and documentation, as experts can answer questions easily, quickly and digitally from anywhere".

Do companies already work with their own talent pool? 

WisR Founder Klaudia Bachinger: "In my opinion, the pioneering company in the German-speaking world is BOSCH. A pool of Senior Experts was founded in 1999 and later formalised, so that today 1,700 Senior Experts return for temporary project assignments equalling approximately. 60,000 working days a year. These are mainly specialists such as technicians and engineers with 40+ years of experience, but also employees in administration or logistics.

In addition to consulting and training, Senior Experts are also deployed in interim operational functions such as for sickness or parental leave. Using their software, they even manage to fill these positions within two days."


Das Manager Magazin / Podcast Generationenmanagement

Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report 2018

How to avoid brain drain? Masterthesis Markus Ahlbäck

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