posted 28 Aug 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 1
What do you do when the baby-boomers retire?
By Sam Marshall
I read an article recently about a convention for the undertaking industry – it was a typical trade-show, but with all the latest coffins and funeral accessories on display. Apparently the undertaking business has hit a slow patch due to increased lifespans.
“It will be 2010 before the baby-boomer generation comes on-stream,” said one funeral director. Quite apart from the fact that even undertakers have their own special jargon, it’s also a reminder that there’s a sizeable portion of the workforce that is about to move on, in every sense of the phrase, taking many decades of experience with them.
There’s a double-squeeze here. Just as the baby boomers leave, we’re looking to replace them with ‘generation next’. Not only is this a much smaller population to recruit from, but they have much higher expectations, too – that the jobs will be rewarding and that they will be able to move fluidly between employers. In short, the basis for corporate memory will get much more volatile.
So far, the response in the human resources (HR) world has been to focus on ‘talent management’; competing harder to attract and retain the right people. This is a useful step, but it’s also a costly one as the competition inevitably drives up the cost of rewarding new-hires, which in turn affects the internal pay-scales. It also focuses on generic ‘talent’ rather than the capability of an organisation as its differentiator, which brings us back to the importance of corporate memory.
In pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline they talk about ‘continuity of capability’ and I think this sums it up best – having capabilities that enable you to do something your competitors cannot do, giving you an edge. Sustaining this capability over time comes from being able to propagate that know-how through successive recruits and not being over-reliant on individuals to make it happen.
In this situation, there’s a great opportunity for knowledge management (KM) and HR to work together, both strategically and tactically.
Strategically it means anticipating the huge changes as baby-boomers leave and dealing not just with the information element, but with all the other ingredients that make up an expert, such as hands-on experience, intuition, skills, relationships and heuristics. Most of this can’t be documented, but if you have a plan to identify the areas that matter most, you can combine mentoring and phased-retirement practices with targeted KM techniques, such as learning histories, peer-assists and communities of practice.
You can also use social-networking technologies to facilitate dialogue across experience gaps, such as building wikis around technical topics. These also help to put structure and context around other resources in the organisation.
Tactically, it’s important for KM practitioners to have something else to offer, too. Think of them as damage-limitation for sudden departures. It is usually more effective to focus on knowledge transfer than capture, using techniques like mind-mapping, systems thinking and storytelling to facilitate it effectively.
This need not be ponderous. I’ve used TV game-show formats, such as Mastermind and Blind Date, as the basis for workshops – not only do they make it easier to get participation, but most people already know the rules.
Having both of these elements in your KM approach will serve well for other big changes – redundancies, outsourcing or relocations. But remember, you need to get there before the knowledge comes ‘on-stream’ for another industry.
Sam Marshall is an independent consultant in the areas of knowledge, collaboration and intranets. He can be contacted at email@example.com or www.clearboxconsulting.co.uk.