One of the greatest difficulties facing the U.S. economy is the aging workforce. As early as 2000, estimates pegged about half of all federal workers — many of whom are information technology workers — being eligible to retire by 2004. The fear began percolating that these workers would take their knowledge with them.
But the mass exodus of workers did not occur as predicted. Several factors intervened: The downturn in the economy caused by the 2001 terrorist attacks, the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the degradation of investor confidence (e.g., Enron, WorldCom) caused the disappearance of many second-career jobs and the devaluation of retirement plans and individual retirement accounts. Many workers have stayed on.
Yet, a simple fact remains. These workers are not getting any younger. The number of employees approaching retirement eligibility continues to grow exponentially, and nowhere is this more evident than in the IT world. Software engineers, computer scientists, quality assurance specialists, business analysts, project managers, network administrators and computer security specialists are leaving the workforce faster than agencies (and companies, too) can replace them.
So, as the baby boomer generation begins to retire, many agency management teams are asking, “What now? What do we do when this stable, loyal and highly competent generation leaves the workplace?” Organizational leaders — CIOs, chief technology officers and chief knowledge officers in particular — face three distinct issues: how to deal with the coming retirement of these workers; how to capture, codify, store and transfer the knowledge they possess; and how to plan for these workers’ replacement.
Preparing for the Inevitable
Many federal IT organizations understand that their survival depends on taking appropriate steps to counter the potential impact of the eventual baby boomer brain drain and are adopting best practices in knowledge transfer and succession planning. These approaches run along a tech spectrum, from high-tech, low-touch strategies centered on the implementation of collaboration tools to low-tech, high-touch methods such as person-to-person mentoring. An agency will want to integrate them to create an environment that puts an emphasis on capturing institutional knowledge for use by employees now and when the brain drain begins in earnest.
Collaboration Tools: Collaboration tools let employees not only interact with one another on projects but also capture, share, use and reuse information and knowledge. Such tools include relatively familiar applications such as e-mail, instant messaging, and shared files, folders, drives and servers. (SharePoint immediately comes to mind.) But increasingly, they also need to include Internet-driven tools such as portals, wikis and blogs.
Knowledge and Expertise Locators: Knowledge workers — of which IT workers are the most prominent — spend a large part of their time searching for data, information, knowledge or expertise. Often, they don’t find it, or the timeliness, accuracy, validity and reliability of what they find is suspect. The departure of longtime feds, many of whom are subject matter experts and know what information to deem worthwhile, will exacerbate this problem. To counter this, agencies need to establish and maintain corporate “yellow pages,” subject-matter-expert directories, organizational competency maps, communities of practice and communities of interest to facilitate the location of valid information.
Knowledge Repositories: One way to capture knowledge is to simply record it. Document management, records management, databases of best practices and lessons learned, desk guides and other documented procedures and practices, and e-libraries can store huge amounts of information and knowledge. (The scary part of this equation: IDC predicts that worldwide data gathering is on the verge of outpacing storage capacity.)
24% Information workers spend nearly a quarter of their work week searching for information and then another quarter of it analyzing information.
The Internet, corporate intranets and portals provide efficient means by which data and information can be presented and used. By employing expert systems, taxonomies and ontologies, and sophisticated search technologies, online repositories can effectively and efficiently locate and bring content to users. Knowledge repositories, however, have a drawback: They can capture explicit knowledge — know what information — but not tacit knowledge — know how or why info, knacks and hunches, and gut feelings and intuitions.
Structured Mentoring: Structured mentoring makes use of a list of competencies — knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes and aptitudes — that a mentor then transfers to an employee. Agencies need to establish a timetable for learning the competencies and to track an employee’s progress on a regular basis.
Storytelling: Storytelling has been around as long as the human race. Cave paintings, the hieroglyphics in the Egyptian pyramids, and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are examples of how people shared knowledge in prehistoric and ancient times. More recently, organizations have resurrected this art by having employees talk about their critical competencies and recording those spoken words, which can be made available electronically as both audio and video feeds.
Organizational Learning: One such technique is known as “Learn before, learn during, learn after.” Based on the work of Kent Greenes and Nancy Dixon, this approach is popular among project teams. A team should study relevant knowledge and information from prior projects and subject-matter experts before a project launches (learn before). During the project, the project team reviews progress at critical junctures and makes decisions about future actions (learn during). At a project’s conclusion, an after-action review will identify best practices and lessons learned. If captured electronically, the information can be continuously recycled into a knowledge repository for use by current and future teams.
Social Network Analysis: A social network analysis uses a discovery process to learn how information and knowledge flow through an organization, and to identify individuals who are knowledge “nodes,” or conduits for knowledge transfer between people, and knowledge gatekeepers, who sort and distribute knowledge. By identifying the information sources and flows, SNA can help leaders plan for the replacement of these critical individuals so their departure does not disrupt that information and knowledge flow.
Ultimately, much of the solution to organizational knowledge loss rests squarely in the hands of agency leaders. Visionary leaders and effective managers will adopt an agile, employee-focused approach to organizational performance. That approach will view employees as holders of the intellectual capital that, in today’s high-tech, fast-paced economy, is the determining factor between success and failure. These leaders and managers will nurture that capital by creating an environmental culture of knowledge sharing, collaboration and intergenerational transfer of competencies.