posted 1 Oct 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 2
Patti Anklam reviews Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce by David DeLong
The demographics of the workforce are changing and there are concerns about the vital knowledge that could be lost when a significant percentage of the workforce retires. In Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce, David DeLong provides a comprehensive examination of the nature of this business problem, solutions and practices that are being adopted in many industries, and a framework for developing and implementing retention strategies for daily business processes.
The book is divided into three parts, woven together by case studies that are referred to throughout. In part one, ‘The high cost of losing intellectual capital’, DeLong introduces case studies from Delta Airlines, Nasa, the Tennessee Valley Authority (a utilities company) and Shell Oil. Each contains a ‘springboard story’ that sets the context for the knowledge-retention work that each company has undertaken. For instance, one story begins: “More than $24bn was invested by [Nasa] over ten years to land astronauts on the moon… but, even when the government officials talk about returning to the moon, few mention the simple and startling fact that the US space agency has forgotten how to get there.”
Part one also summarises the framework that is detailed in DeLong’s conclusion. The framework suggests that a knowledge-retention strategy must be integrated with knowledge-transfer practices; IT applications to capture, store, and share knowledge; knowledge-recovery initiatives; and human-resource processes and practices.
Part two, ‘Evaluating knowledge-retention practices’, examines specific practices within each of the four elements of the strategy. DeLong illustrates how documenting work practices, knowledge harvesting, communities of practice, expertise locators, after-action reviews, training and documentation fit into retention strategies. He references emerging techniques, pointing to the potential of social-network analysis to diagnose potential key losses in expertise networks.
DeLong draws close connections between HR practices and initiatives and knowledge management. HR practices include competency mapping, hiring practices and mentoring programmes. Additionally, HR initiatives that enable employees to continue to participate in projects after retirement require significant investment, but open the door to a KM/HR partnership when developing knowledge-retention strategies.
Strategy work is addressed in part three, ‘Implementing retention strategies’. This does not disappoint: as can be seen from his directives for starting on a strategy. DeLong suggests determining what knowledge is most at risk; building sustained organisational support for retention initiatives; and deciding which initiatives to pursue first.
The framework provides guidelines for each of these elements. There are examples of creating a practical business case, insights into how to commit senior management to problem solving, and the considerations for starting programmes that alleviate short-term problems (for instance, when Delta needed to quickly capture the knowledge of 1,200 aviation maintenance technicians who opted into an attractive severance package). However, this section mostly emphasises the need to ensure that the demographics of the workforce and strategies for retaining knowledge become part of an organisation’s core long-term operational policies and practices.
The way Lost Knowledge focuses on a specific business problem is effective. DeLong presents a problem, then maps existing practices and methods from human resources, organisational development, knowledge management and strategic planning that can be applied in solving the problem. He provides a framework and set of models that managers can adapt to their own unique situation. KM practitioners will certainly see their own situation in at least one of the examples used.
Lost Knowledge maintains a high degree of clarity, making sure you focus on the knowledge you cannot afford to lose. Unfortunately, most of this knowledge is highly contextual and multi-disciplinary:
“The cumulative knowledge gained by working with others in an environment that integrates complex specialties creates kinds of expertise that are very hard to replicate.” Industry has spent the past 30 years building increasingly complex and integrated systems – the knowledge that comes from working with people in multiple disciplines is that which is the most difficult to replace and the most costly to lose.
The issues and practical approaches described are useful for KM practitioners, HR managers and business leaders. Lost Knowledge is about the changing workforce, and how a business cannot succeed and grow in the 21st century without a KM strategy. It is great pre-reading for establishing a partnership between knowledge management and HR professionals in an organisation.
This book does not simply frame a business problem and map solutions from the KM toolkit. DeLong writes in a colloquial style but ideas are promptly followed by specific examples. He does not gush about solutions and is candid about failures. Lost Knowledge provides useful stories and connections for starting, renewing or refreshing your conversations about knowledge retention.
Patti Anklam, principal consultant, Hutchinson Associates, firstname.lastname@example.org
Title: Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce
Author: David DeLong
Publishers: Oxford University Press, 2004