4 Ways to Avoid Institutional Memory Loss When Key Employees Leave

September 10, 2015

institutional memory loss

Once the backbone of many organizations, Baby Boomers are nearing retirement age. According to the Pew Research Center, about 10,000 Boomers will hit age 65 every day for the next 15 years. When they do retire, they’ll be taking with them a wealth of knowledge and know-how, often gained from decades of working for the same company.

Employers, meanwhile, recognize the potential impact this “brain drain” could have on their operations. Many are taking steps to hang on to the knowledge stored in the minds of those retiring Boomers to prevent institutional memory loss.

In an article in Crain’s Detroit Business, Dr. Andrew M. Pena, Assistant Vice President of Human Resources at New Mexico State University, sums up what’s at stake if companies don’t take measures to capture what exiting senior executives know.

“If you don’t do something proactively today,” he argues, "you’re going to be stuck with employees who know basic tasks but don’t have that institutional knowledge.”

The first thing many organizations try is to keep Boomers from leaving to begin with, offering the option of flexible hours, part-time work or the ability to work from home. Some retirees are retained as consultants to help with the transition to their replacements.

Related reading: Looking At the Big Picture to Deal With Reluctance to Employee Training

This year, LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute, an insurance and financial services trade association, surveyed more than 800 U.S. companies with 10 or more employees, and 92 percent reported they had established programs to retain older workers. Eight in 10 companies feared the loss of experience, institutional knowledge and leadership as those older workers ride off into the sunset.

On the other hand, in 2014, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) polled nearly 2,000 professionals for its Preparing for an Aging Workforce white paper. Rather surprisingly, 34 percent said their organizations had failed to address the potential skills gap that could result when older workers left.

Apart from hanging on to Boomers, some of the most interesting ways employers are plugging the retiree brain drain is with new tech strategies, many of which can effectively support an online employee training program.

1. Put mentoring online

A company-wide mentoring program is a good way to bring together senior and junior executives. Mentoring needn’t be exclusively done in person, however. Today, many software companies enable online mentoring.

Before establishing a mentoring program, first determine what core expertise the company needs to impart to its younger workers and how the program will be structured (one-to-one or group). Build the online and in-person mentoring program around the skill sets you want to prioritize, then promote participation and measure results.

Related reading: 3 Customer Training Trends You Can Try Using Online Courses

Instead of using a software application, some companies create portals through which younger executives can tap into the knowledge base of senior staff members. In the Crain’s Detroit Business article referenced earlier, Chris Oster, GM’s global director for talent development, detailed how the company plans to launch an internal mentor portal this summer, particularly serving 4,000 finance department staff. By creating a profile, mentees can pinpoint the skills they seek to learn and find the mentor most likely to deliver that instruction.

2. Build your knowledge library

Two of the most common ways of storing institutional memory are with internal wikis and content management libraries.

Internal wikis empower employees to share information and build a library of information. Since everyone in the company has access, knowledge is curated online and doesn’t leave the building when the senior executive does. Intel’s Intelpedia is one example of a corporate wiki capturing the knowledge of senior workers in the form of a digital asset.

An enterprise content management (ECM) system stores all content related to corporate processes. As Ari Bixhorn, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Panopto, writes in a recent blog on CMS Wire, most current ECM systems enable the storage of a wide range of content, from documents to social content, such as blogs, wikis and discussion feeds. So there’s no more wading through piles of paper to find the appropriate or sought-after information.

3. Film some video

Another tech option is to record senior executives on video and adding that to your content library for all to access. These videos can function as short, easy ways to instruct younger workers.

Some of the possible formats for video recordings include:

  • How it’s done.
  • What I’ve learned.
  • Meet the expert.
  • Tips and tricks on particular subjects.

Professional services consultancy Aragon Research has a useful worksheet on planning “knowledge capture” video production.

4. Implement an employee training program

The great part about all these tech tools -- online mentoring, internal wikis, ECMs and video knowledge capture -- is that they help build content for an excellent employee training program.

  • Online courses can be a point of connection and discussion in mentoring relationships. Younger employees working through a course can use their mentors to further enhance the experience. Mentors hearing about concerns from their juniors can recommend particular courses.
  • By including the perspective of retiring baby boomers, existing training programs can begin to weave in “organic” material along with what trainers and instructional designers developed for the course.
  • Newer online employee training programs can use these tools to get a running start on building digital assets to roll up into their courses.

Lastly, these tech tools have the advantage of reaching remote employees and enable learning 24/7 — major pluses when conveying expertise throughout a corporation that has far-flung locations.



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