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Dave's not here: Retiree Knowledge Retention

1 May 2013

Hagay Kalev

Employees leave. It happens every day and right under our noses, so much we have grown indifferent to it. Even if we once stopped to shed a tear or get excited, we quickly learned to forget and internalize. They can leave because they found a better job; because they didn't get along in their current workplace; or that they are simply retiring.

Regardless of the reason the worker left, we must focus on the implications of his/her leaving on an organizational level. What the worker is leaving with is critical: knowledge, information, experience, relationships etc.


How many times have you had to contact an organization you have a business relationship with and requested to talk to Dave (Not his real name…) who has worked with you several times and therefore knows your history, only to be answered surely that "Dave's not here. He doesn't live here anymore". None of the workers present has a clue what you and Dave agreed on previously. This is indeed problematic.


These cases usually end with recovery attempts which include mining through history with the client and/or those present till even ground is reached. Yet, what happens if this is critical knowledge which must be acquired immediately and there is no one to address the issue? A wise man once told me that a lack of knowledge will eventually lead to planes falling from the sky. This is a tad extreme, but it still resonates when I perform Knowledge Retention activities and makes me personally pay attention to seemingly trivial issues.


Now that we understand the importance of Knowledge Retention in organizations, we must think of solutions (on an organizational level) and be prepared for such a situation.

Here are some tips that can assist in minimizing harm and performing activities efficiently:

  1. Conduct and manage a precise list of all veteran workers who are expected to retire in the coming years. In accordance with the retirement date and knowledge field (explained in the next paragraph) identify and decide on performing a Knowledge Retention activity among these workers. This list should be updated every predefined period.

  2. Map the knowledge and positions/responsibilities of each worker in the organization/department/field before it's too late and reserve your mapping:

    • Routinely: you can direct projects and different activities professionally and effectively.

    • When leaving/completing a task: you can focus on knowledge which is important to retain from this worker.

  3. Even a worker that has only worked in the organization for a year or two has saw, heard and experienced something worth retaining. Consider this worker as a holder of critical knowledge.

  4. Reserve enough time for activities of knowledge retention, since they can take several months due to various constraints. Projects postponed to the last minute are conducted under pressure and usually miss many important subjects we would like to retain (besides subjects defined as most critical).

  5. One man's trivial is another man's treasure: When deciding on subjects to be documented and retained, don't hurry to filter and skip on subjects that an expert defines as unimportant or trivial. Validate the importance with the knowledge receivers/clients only.

  6. Avoid 'White Elephants': Expert Knowledge Retention is not a passing phase; it is a critical activity with implications on the organization's business activity. Don't perform a Knowledge Retention project for show, use the project in order to learn and serve the organizational goals.

  7. Recruit Management: this phrase may sound redundant, as it is said about every project. Yet, it is true. Even though in most cases the activity is performed by 2-3 workers (expert, successor and activity director) an involved management that understands the criticality of the issue and wants to produce the most from this process can make the difference between an activity performed for the sake of performing it and an activity that will birth a new organizational conscious perception regarding everything related to Knowledge Management, specifically Knowledge Retention: additional activities, updating and refreshing the existing knowledge, etc.


A final point which in my opinion is equally important and refers to project management in practice is (among others):

  • Sensitivity! Remember, we are working with people, not machines. Some people do not know/cannot share their knowledge freely, especially when the subject of retirement is echoing and generates a certain anxiety within most workers.

  • If possible, schedule activities so that they are not too pressuring (especially not for the retiring expert).

  • Use the correct terminology:

    • Instead of saying "milking knowledge" say "retaining knowledge".

    • Don't say "the retiree". Some find this pressuring. Instead refer to him/her as 'the expert.

    • Show empathy and listen to stories end explanation, even if they slightly divert from the subject. It helps the expert open up and will therefore serve the cause later (if any insights can be derived from the story, document those as well).

  • Maintain an ongoing relationship. Even when no work is being done, if you happen to be around drop by and say hello. This will create a friendly, positive atmosphere that will serve the cause in the future.

To conclude, one last tip: Knowledge Retention should reveal what we don't know. This should be our objective.

Good luck.

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