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Lost Knowledge- Confronting the Threat of an aging Workforce‎ - Book Review

1 September 2009
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

The book, authored by David Delong in 2004, is an exceptional resource dedicated to knowledge preservation. It delves into the challenges organizations face when attempting to retain knowledge as employees leave, whether due to natural turnover, deliberate reductions, or retirement. With comprehensive insights, the book acknowledges no one-size-fits-all solution, instead guiding critical thinking and actionable steps.


Delong explores various approaches rooted in classical knowledge management within the proposed solution space. This further reinforces the understanding of the importance of knowledge management, extending its relevance beyond those directly involved in the field.


The book encompasses the following key topics:
  1.  The Need for Preserving Knowledge: It examines why knowledge retention is crucial, particularly in today's context.

  2. Sharing Overt and Covert Knowledge: The book delves into different types of knowledge and effective strategies for sharing them.

  3. HR Infrastructure: The role of human resources in knowledge preservation is discussed, including systems for managing employee skills and fostering a culture of knowledge preservation.

  4. Computing Infrastructure: The book highlights the significance of technology tools and systems in supporting knowledge capture, storage, and accessibility.

  5. Infrastructure, Procedures, and Work Rules: It addresses the importance of establishing procedures and rules that facilitate knowledge preservation, such as succession planning and knowledge transfer policies.

  6. How to Get Started: The book offers guidance on initiating knowledge preservation efforts, including assessing the current state, identifying critical knowledge areas, and implementing knowledge transfer initiatives.

  7. Appendix Case Studies: Practical examples of knowledge preservation strategies are provided through real-world case studies.


This book is highly recommended for individuals who preserve knowledge as they prepare for employee departures. It is also valuable for those discussing the significance of knowledge retention as an organizational issue. Additionally, it is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the field of knowledge management. Enjoy your reading experience!

The need for preserving knowledge

The need to preserve knowledge is often underestimated by organizations, despite its critical importance for their survival. It is not a mere luxury but a necessary step for organizations aiming to maintain performance, foster innovation, and facilitate growth. Preserving knowledge becomes imperative to safeguard competitive capabilities. Delong highlights numerous examples of organizations that lost critical abilities they once possessed, only to face significant challenges when they needed them. Knowledge retention focuses on the specific knowledge required for effective action and decision-making rather than attempting to preserve all organizational knowledge.


Several factors have exacerbated the problem in recent years:

  1. Shifts in the average age of employees within organizations, influenced by previous birth trends, particularly the baby boomer generation.

  2. Changing global operational trends lead to fluctuations in the demand for specific knowledge, such as nuclear expertise, with periods of decrease followed by abrupt surges.

  3. The increasing complexity of knowledge required for various roles within organizations.


To analyze organizational knowledge at risk of loss, it is crucial to consider four dimensions:

  1. Whether the knowledge is personal, team-based, or organizational.

  2. Whether the effects of knowledge loss can be predicted.

  3. Whether the consequences of knowledge loss are visible or hidden.

  4. Whether the cost of damage resulting from knowledge loss is immediate or deferred.


Understanding these dimensions helps identify problem areas and guides decision-making when addressing knowledge preservation.


Recognizing the need to preserve knowledge poses challenges for organizations due to several reasons:

  • The costs of knowledge loss are often concealed and not immediately apparent.

  • Organizational leaders may not fully comprehend the vulnerabilities associated with critical knowledge loss.

  • No one takes ownership of the issue of lost knowledge within the organization.

  • Even when potential loss is acknowledged, it can be not easy to recognize the need to allocate resources to address it.

  • Preserving knowledge requires more than merely capturing it; proactive measures are necessary to ensure long-term preservation and prevent loss.


Moreover, recruiting young individuals to assume the responsibility of preserving knowledge presents its own set of challenges. University training has evolved significantly in content and emphasis compared to previous decades, posing unique obstacles in fields like nuclear engineering. Additionally, various professions need more candidates with academic qualifications, including orthopedics, radiology, and nursing specialties. Individuals with the capacity to receive and apply the knowledge being held are crucial to succeed in preserving knowledge. Otherwise, the act of preservation loses its purpose.


The preservation of knowledge must address the challenges posed by employee retirement, increasing competition in recruitment, and personnel turnover within organizations.

Sharing Overt and Covert Knowledge

Facilitating the sharing and transferring of knowledge within an organization requires recognizing visible and tacit knowledge in various forms and levels. The following five guiding principles can help in effectively sharing existing knowledge throughout the organization:

  1.  Ensure that knowledge transfer activities yield both short-term and long-term benefits.

  2. Address barriers and objections hindering knowledge sharing to ensure successful transfer. Assess the willingness of experienced employees to share their knowledge with younger colleagues so that they can effectively utilize it.

  3. Select tactics, such as mentoring or interviews, that align with the organization's objectives, budget, and time constraints.

  4. Focus on the future applicability of transferred knowledge rather than dwelling solely on past experiences.

  5. Consider potential barriers and objections, particularly about the relationship between veteran and young employees (trust, differing perceptions, etc.), the comprehension of new knowledge by recipients, and the connection between learning and its practical outputs.


Various tools are available for knowledge transfer and can be utilized to transmit overt and covert knowledge. Categorizing them into two distinct groups aims to provide more effective tools for each type of knowledge.


Key Tools for Sharing Overt Knowledge:

  1.  Documentation, including storage in accessible repositories, is an important tool. Considerations include:

    - Ensuring control over documentation processes to identify any existing gaps.

    - Evaluating the working relationship between managers and key contributors, as it impacts documentation accuracy.

    - Recognizing that documentation is an ongoing task that should be addressed in daily operations.

  2. Interviews are also effective for sharing and externalizing tacit knowledge. Considerations include:

    - Implementing effective structures for interview processes.

    - Recognizing the importance of a culture that encourages the utilization of interview outputs.

    - Engaging trained individuals to conduct interviews and guide the process effectively.

    - Encouraging interviewees to review and approve the interview products before distribution.

    - Strategically selecting appropriate interviewees, as it may not be feasible to interview everyone.

  3. Training is a suitable tool when there is a need to expand activities and transfer knowledge to a group. Considerations include:

    - Striking the right balance between addressing immediate needs and fulfilling long-term knowledge requirements.

    - Employing appropriate training techniques for maximum effectiveness.

    - Prioritizing training for individuals perceived as the future of the organization.

    - Recognizing the significance of instructors as part of the knowledge preservation system.

    - Evaluating whether decentralizing training through professional units is more suitable than centralizing it.


Key Tools for Sharing Covert Knowledge:

  1. Storytelling is an effective tool for sharing tacit knowledge. Considerations include:

    1. Communicating the goal of knowledge transfer rather than focusing solely on combating legacy knowledge.

    2. Establishing fixed times, such as specific meetings or annual conferences, for sharing knowledge.

    3. Ensuring the audience understands the contexts in which the knowledge can be useful to them in the future.

    4. Emphasizing the packaging of "knowledge" when face-to-face interactions are impossible.

  2. Mentoring and coaching are valuable tools. Considerations include:

    1. Focusing on critical issues due to time constraints.

    2. Allocating sufficient time and financial resources to the mentoring process, recognizing it as an investment.

    3. Providing training to mentors on how to effectively assist mentees.

    4. Creating a supportive environment that fosters trust and facilitates mentoring.

  3. Lessons learned through after-action reviews are helpful when knowledge is scattered and needs consolidation. Considerations include:

    1. Incorporating after-action reviews as a regular tool for frequent use, not just at the end of significant projects.

    2. Utilizing after-action reviews to identify gaps and knowledge requirements within the group.

  4. Knowledge Communities of Practice are beneficial for sharing tacit knowledge. Considerations include:

    1. Facilitating conversations and forums within the community, incorporating physical and virtual components.

    2. Recognizing that learning is a collaborative process, reducing hierarchical barriers.

    3. Encouraging employee commitment to the community.

    4. Promoting simple and accessible connectivity between community members.

    5. Aligning community objectives with organizational goals.

When knowledge loss occurs within an organization, and it becomes evident after employees have departed, several alternatives can be considered:

  • If feasible, take steps to prevent employees from retiring prematurely.

  • Consider rehiring retirees as consultants to leverage their expertise.

  • Implement measures to limit the possibility of retirees returning as consultants.

  • Actively encourage the return of retirees willing to work on a regular, full-time, or part-time.

  • Modify work and computing processes to minimize the dependence on specific knowledge.


HR Infrastructure

The human resources department plays a crucial role in preserving organizational knowledge and significantly influencing its organizational retention. Key responsibilities in this regard include:

  1. Implementing supportive systems and work processes to manage the employee skills pool. Continuous database content analysis enables early identification of potential knowledge loss risks. Human-driven processes must support these databases to ensure the quality of their contents.

  2. Developing employee and manager plans to encompass short-term and long-term objectives and monitor their progress. Examples of supportive tools include:

    1. Managing internal job postings and encouraging employees to apply, minimizing external attrition.

    2. Prioritizing the promotion of internal managers over external hiring.

    3. Implementing programs that align organizational needs with individual aspirations.

  3. Cultivating a knowledge preservation culture through the following measures:

    1. Creating a work environment that minimizes employee burnout and prioritizes trust and support for individual development.

    2. Establishing a work environment that emphasizes daily knowledge acquisition, sharing, and utilization. It is important to recognize that employee retention alone cannot be the sole solution. Emphasis should be placed on trust, recognition, collaboration, and integration.

    3. Investing in change management strategies tailored to the existing organizational culture of each company.

  4. Implementing gradual retirement plans that allow employees to transition out of their roles gradually, preserving their knowledge and facilitating mentoring opportunities. Regular annual or periodic reports can highlight the organization's knowledge state and assess the potential risk of knowledge loss. Establishing a connection between retirement plans and knowledge management strategies is essential. Tools to retain older workers include:

    1. Modifying pension plans to accommodate knowledge retention needs.

    2. Providing training to employees regarding the financial implications of retirement may encourage them to postpone their departure.

    3. Promoting the concept of gradual retirement as a viable alternative and ensuring employees are well-informed and comfortable with the idea.

    4. Assessing and fostering the organization's attitude towards its mature employees.

  5. Promoting, managing, or integrating efforts for organizational knowledge management.

By focusing on these areas, the HR infrastructure can effectively contribute to preserving and managing organizational knowledge.

Computing Infrastructure

The role of computer infrastructure in knowledge preservation is undeniable, but it is important to remember that it is secondary and not the primary focus. It serves as a support system for knowledge preservation rather than being the core element. Four types of activities can be facilitated using an appropriate computer system:

  1.  Facilitating connections between individuals and experts. Considerations include:

    1. Effectiveness relies on the availability of specialists within the organization rather than retirees.

    2. Helps in understanding knowledge loss when a specialist leaves.

    3. Can aid in recovering lost knowledge within specific areas if it exists elsewhere.

    4. Should align with the organizational culture.

    5. Recommends a program that encourages both top-down and bottom-up utilization and assimilation.

    6. Should be used as a targeted tool, not as a substitute for email communication.

  2. Implementing machine learning programs, which can be classified into three main types:

    1. Collaborative technologies.

    2. E-learning tools.

    3. Decision support systems, problem-solving support, and expert systems.

  3. Establishing accessible knowledge bases that encompass documented knowledge. This can be achieved through three main types of systems:

    1. Web databases.

    2. Knowledge bases of lessons learned.

    3. Computerized documentation of work processes and tasks.

  4. Providing support for the knowledge retention system within the human resources framework. This aligns with the infrastructure described in the Human Resources chapter and can include:

    1. Employee skills management systems.

    2. Social and professional relationship mapping (Social Network Analysis).

    3. Additional dedicated systems.

 By implementing an appropriate computing infrastructure, these activities can be facilitated, contributing to the overall knowledge preservation efforts within the organization.

 Remember, while computing infrastructure plays a significant role, it should always be seen as a supporting element rather than the main driver of the knowledge preservation process.


Infrastructure, Procedures, and Work Rules

While the infrastructure of procedures and tools is crucial, it only operates in collaboration. Instead, it is intricately woven into ongoing efforts to preserve overt and covert knowledge. It integrates with the work systems and processes defined within the human resources infrastructure, which includes managing retirement plans, developing employees and managers, and overseeing employee skills. Additionally, it is closely tied to the computing infrastructure. This integration across various facets is a key factor that transforms the principle of knowledge preservation into a tangible reality.

 The infrastructure of procedures and tools plays a vital role in knowledge preservation, but it cannot be viewed in isolation. It is deeply interconnected with the ongoing initiatives to preserve overt and covert knowledge. This integration occurs within the work systems and processes established within the human resources infrastructure, encompassing retirement plans, employee and manager development, and the management of employee skills. Moreover, it closely aligns with the computing infrastructure. This interplay among different elements is a critical factor that turns the concept of knowledge preservation into a practical and effective endeavor.


How to Get Started

To address the primary issue in most organizations, which involves convincing senior management and middle managers of the urgency and depth of the knowledge loss problem and establishing a plan for organizational knowledge retention, the following steps are recommended to get started:

  1.  Begin by analyzing the knowledge at risk and prioritize preservation efforts. Remember, preserving all knowledge is unnecessary; instead, focus on the most critical knowledge areas.

  2. Recognize that there is more knowledge to preserve than available time and resources. Make strategic choices and allocate resources accordingly.

  3. Build organizational and managerial commitment by creating a strong business case demonstrating knowledge loss's impact on business needs.

  4. Start small and progress gradually. Implement pilot projects or initiatives to showcase the value of knowledge retention and gain support.

  5. Invest in surveys and risk analysis to illustrate the need for knowledge retention. Consider using the TVA (Technical Value Analysis) method, which involves assessing the situation of employees and planned retirements, evaluating the criticality of knowledge, building an activity matrix, and analyzing alternative solutions.

  6. Understand the organizational culture and identify barriers to knowledge retention. Acknowledge that promotions may not be based on investment in knowledge preservation, some individuals may be reluctant to share knowledge or listen, corporate communication may not encourage knowledge sharing, experts may value knowledge differently, and sharing methods may constantly evolve.

  7. Address time and resource constraints at the employee level. Gain a deep understanding of the organizational and individual culture and barriers. Seek support from managers in overcoming specific challenges.

  8. Work with a methodology. Consider mapping knowledge issues, translating them into processes, contextualizing their significance, and implementing targeted conservation actions. Maintain a balance between organizational and departmental goals.

  9. Understand the resources required for knowledge retention. Recognize that knowledge retention is a resource-intensive process in terms of time and money. Also, acknowledge that the effort required may vary based on factors such as seniority levels, the complexity of knowledge, the workload of retirees, and other considerations.

  10. Consider preventive measures. Retirement challenges will continue to be a reality in the future, so it is essential to address knowledge retention proactively.


By following these steps, organizations can establish a solid foundation for their knowledge retention efforts and effectively mitigate the risks associated with knowledge loss.


Appendix Case Studies

  • Sandia Labs is an industrial organization that supports the nuclear industry. They lost knowledge due to the discontinuation of nuclear facility construction in the 1990s.

    • Description of knowledge retention activities: The organization implemented employee recording to preserve knowledge. They also conducted a dimensional analysis project to address the issue of knowledge loss.

      Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and military industries company, experienced downsizing due to the recession and was preparing for a baby boom.

    • Description of knowledge retention activities: The company implemented various knowledge management activities and conducted a risk analysis project. They designated recommendations based on a survey undertaken in the organization.

  • BP Trinidad & Tobago, a gas and fuels company, faced a shortage of job candidates, particularly in geoscience.

    • Description of knowledge retention activities: The company implemented a knowledge survey and established processes to retain and transfer knowledge. They also introduced a focused coaching program to address the shortage of qualified candidates.

  • TVA, a public electrical facilities company, dealt with challenges related to early retirement and a baby boom.

    • Description of knowledge retention activities: The company conducted a retirement intent and knowledge loss risk survey. They focused on mapping people and their knowledge, structuring and documenting knowledge, providing training and development programs, implementing process changes, and seeking assistance from consultants.

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