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Wanting to Preserve Organizational Knowledge Before Retirement

1 October 2011
Dr. Moria Levy
A stack of binders with papers

"Cemeteries are full of people who had no replacements."


This is a well-known saying, and yet in many organizations, experts in their seventies and even older continue to work part-time, more or less, because the organization cannot part with them and fears the day when it will be left without the vast knowledge they have accumulated over decades of work.


Preserving the knowledge of retirees is a sub-field of knowledge management that deals with projects aimed at keeping the knowledge of experts and minimizing the potential organizational damage that may result from their retirement. Seemingly, if an organization manages all its knowledge, then there is no need for such activity. However, since most of us have not yet reached that level of maturity, preserving retirees' knowledge is gaining momentum in many organizations. In recent years, interest in the topic has grown in Israel due to a combination of two factors:


First, as is true everywhere in the world, we are becoming knowledge workers, and knowledge is becoming increasingly significant for job success. Therefore, as employees approach retirement, organizations are seeking to undertake active efforts to preserve the accumulated knowledge more than in the past.


Second, the Israeli economy, like any other economy, operates in waves. About forty-five years ago, there was a significant wave of growth following the Six-Day War, and therefore, we are now witnessing many companies planning large waves of retirement.


An organization can easily understand that action is required. Most organizations have computerized human resource management systems, and it is easy to generate a report indicating the expected number of retirees each year. Yet, we do not see organizations rushing to invest in strategies or even necessary activities for knowledge preservation, as one might expect.


The interesting question is: Why? Are they not aware of the impending challenge? Do they not understand the implications of not managing knowledge for the near and distant future?


Since we cannot claim that the organizations and the individuals leading them lack the will or intelligence to understand this, we must try to find another explanation for this behavior. If knowledge preservation is required, we can influence and convince them to invest efforts in the matter.


Based on the experience of WROM, a company operating in this field, four main factors cause organizations not to start and act, even if they expect increased waves of retirement among knowledge workers:


Lack of Knowledge

Many organizations are unaware that methodologies have been developed in knowledge management that allow for preservation, which is much more than the "handover" and "role transfer" we have become accustomed to over the years.


Lack of Belief

Many managers think it is impossible to do something and salvage the situation and that we are destined to reinvent much of the wheel. "Should we connect electrodes to the retiree's brain?" they might ask, sometimes while rolling their eyes upward.


Lack of Internalization

Some managers do not internalize the potential for impending damage. They think about replacing the veterans with younger employees. Still, they do not internalize the difference in the ability of these two groups to function, even if the younger employees work for three or six months as shadows or understudies to the veterans.


Procrastination

Many organizations postpone retiree knowledge preservation activities to tomorrow, next week, next month, or perhaps next year. They do this for a simple and honest reason: they are always preoccupied with the current crisis.


I recently spoke with a global expert in retiree knowledge preservation, Dr. Jay Liebowitz, who teaches the subject and is a wise man who previously served as the knowledge manager of NASA. Like other experts, Liebowitz argues that organizations should adopt a knowledge preservation strategy, where knowledge preservation begins for every employee on the day they join the organization and role and ends only with their departure or retirement. This strategy is undoubtedly beautiful and impressive, but if we look at organizations in their current state, it seems more like a vision of the end of days than a strategy with a chance of being adopted by many organizations, especially in the reality we live in of a constant lack of time and money resources.


So, how can we get an organization to want to preserve knowledge?


First, organizations always preoccupied with the present and putting out fires will find it difficult to change their culture and address the problem unless they encounter a severe crisis resulting from the loss of knowledge due to an employee's retirement. In such a case, there is a chance they will try to learn lessons, and by remembering the failure that resulted from the loss of knowledge, they may be open to hearing about a way to preserve knowledge before retirement.


Organizations that do not internalize the meaning of departure can learn similarly after experiencing it firsthand. Such organizations, if they engage in future planning, can even be convinced through rational means to "take action" if internal people from the organization point out the need from within, specifically in the pain points.


In most other organizations (groups a, b above), it has been found, from experience, that the perceptual change can be made, even if not with too much effort since there are already organizations in Israel that have experienced retiree knowledge preservation and were satisfied with the results, a well-known approach of demonstration can be taken: bringing the experienced together with those lacking knowledge and lacking belief.


It is difficult to make a significant change, which has high implications in terms of the required resources (money, time, and even more managerial time), but there is no need for that.


The purpose of bringing experienced and inexperienced organizations together is to open a door, a door based on which managers will decide to conduct a pilot with a small number of retirees and examine for themselves whether there is such a thing as "retiree knowledge preservation," or if it is just a fancy term used by professionals. And if it does exist, learn whether it applies to their organization.


The examination cost is not high, and if the activity is successful, it usually leads to a desire to expand to other parts of the organization.


Meanwhile, in Israel, there seem to be signs of success. More than ten organizations are already in the process. We may have started in Israel after other countries around the world. Still, it is possible here, too, as in different areas, we will prove that there are practical, fast, and efficient methods for dealing with this issue, much more so than expected in the large global village.

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