Jean Casanova, Director of Knowledge Management for the Alliance for Strong Families
and Communities

Whether due to retirement or other voluntary staff turnover, it is painful to lose experienced workers in any business for reasons often invisible and intangible. Relationships are disrupted, time needs to be spent on recruiting and onboarding replacements and, arguably most important, expertise is lost, resulting in delays and potential mistakes.

Fortunately, knowledge transfer practices are emerging to minimize the “brain drain.”

Interview the Expert

While all routine processes should be documented, the often unrecognized and greater risk is with processes that require a high degree of judgement, strong relationships or very specialized knowledge. Rather than sitting a retreating expert in a room alone to write a tome, take some time to interview her. With a few basic (but not obvious) questions, you will get a better idea of what needs to be done.

Questions to consider include:

  • What could fall through the cracks when you leave?
  • What tasks are at-risk if not done well?
  • What responsibilities will require personal experience or judgement?
  • What issues have grey areas in decision-making?
  • What contacts or relationships should the organization know about?

Two-Week Notice Scenario

If you have only a two-week notice, and if a replacement will not have any overlap time with the expert, record (audio or video) the answers to the questions provided above. If possible, break up the skills and ask different employees to connect with the expert on only one responsibility they will be covering until a replacement is hired.

The Luxury of Time Scenario

If you are lucky enough to be given several months’ notice, you can take a structured approach to identifying and filling knowledge gaps. Dorothy Leonard’s Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your company’s Deep Smarts outlines a technique called OPPTY (Observation, Partnering, Practicing and Taking Responsibility). Based on an apprenticeship model, the learner and the expert determine the skills the learner needs, collaboratively developing learning opportunities that move the learner from observing the expert to ultimately taking full responsibility for the skill.

This is a great way to go if you decide to deepen your bench strength by growing internal expertise. (If you decide to recruit experts from outside your organization, you can use this technique to better identify skills to look for in the applicant pool.)

Retirement Date Unknown Scenario

Don’t have a retirement date, but know it’s coming? Be proactive and set up systems so early career staff can “ask an expert” in an online discussion or drop-in office hours. Build case reviews, lessons learned and after-action reviews into your culture to promote rich discussions about decision points and experts’ reasoning. Start a mentorship program, or have experts connect others in the organization to their contacts.

Whatever timeframe or technique you choose, focus on the “know how” (true knowledge, or what is in people’s heads) versus the “know what” (information that can be easily found).

Making knowledge transfer part of your performance management system will ultimately create a pathway for organizational resiliency in the wake of lost knowledge.