Telling stories

Get employee knowledge before departure

Posted by southwrite on December 23, 2013

Randy Southerland, Contributing Writer
The Atlanta Business Chronicle, Dec 6, 2013
When an employee takes another job or retires, the company is often losing more than a familiar face. The team may be saying good bye to hard to replace experience, expertise and institutional knowledge not found in any manual.

To make sure the job gets done, businesses can recover some, if not all of this employee’s investment by developing and implementing effective knowledge transfer programs, according to human resource professionals.

For industries facing mass retirements of baby boomers, the need is particularly critical.

“The baby boomers were the biggest generation and depending on how you read the numbers there are not enough bodies to fill those open slots,” said Cathy Missildine, president of Intellectual Capital Consulting Inc. and president of SHRM Atlanta.

While knowledge management includes documents, files and other physical records, some of the most important information is “between the ears” of workers. The challenge is getting it into a format that can be used by the company.

“The companies that figure out how to retain this knowledge are going to have a competitive advantage,” said Missildine.

Effective knowledge transfer must begin long before employees give notice. By the time the exit interview rolls around it’s no late to gather job knowledge — even if the worker is willing to provide it, says Patricia Budd, president of Better Life Now and a director for SHRM Atlanta.

“The exit interview is really trying to get a handle on what the employees are thinking about as they leave the company,” said Budd. “What was their experience? What suggestions would they have to make this a better work place? That is what human resources is concerned about.”

Employees can’t be forced to do an exit interview and they are rarely done with workers who are terminated involuntarily.

Companies should begin by identifying positions where knowledge transfer is most needed. Their ranks include executives and managers as well as sales professionals. Other areas where knowledge may need to be preserved include workers leading a particular team or important project.

“A company will really know those positions within which they want to capture and preserve that intellectual knowledge,” said Budd. “In many cases it might be technical folks, but it could be other areas such as marketing that would be good to capture.”

The transfer of knowledge can take many forms including regular status reports, developing detailed policies and procedures, mentoring of other workers and cross training, according to HR experts.

The best practices revolve around putting in place systems and processes that really capture the kind of information the company wants to have in hand when the employee walks out the door.

“Job descriptions don’t really do that,” said Budd. “When a person comes in and becomes familiar with the department and the functions of the job the good employees are always improving upon what they are doing. To capture that data while they’re there is really best practice.”

Workers also have the best perspective on what information the company needs to keep running smooth. They can also help in the development and even updating of questionnaires for their positions.

“Each company needs to look at how they do business and what is really important to them being successful,” said Budd. “Then they can identify ahead of time who has the knowledge.”

The effectiveness of these programs also depends on being able to overcome some very human obstacles. Workers can be protective of their special expertise and see as a form of power, according to Missildine.

An important part of capturing worker knowledge includes having ready access to the often vast amounts of electronic data that workers produce. Storing data on a central network — rather than on isolated PCs — helps avoid fruitless searches for documents or other materials that can delay work.

“There are so many systems that will save documents and save information and save emails for storage and retention even if an employee is unavailable,” said Marcia Ganz, an associate at Littler.

It’s important to establish clear polices on how information is handled. Higher level employees can be required to provide periodic status updates or project plans on a regular schedule such as quarterly or even monthly.

“That way the lost knowledge is limited to the past three months as opposed to a year or more,” said Ganz.

Companies can use incentives to encourage worker compliance such as conditioning severance or other pay outs at the time of resignation on following the firm’s notice policy. By providing the specified notice, the worker is able to get a payout of vacation or unused time-off.

The employer who decided to use this option has to make sure that these policies are not violations of state labor laws even in “right to work” states such as Georgia.

“There are potential issues with requiring a two week notice period that could risk the ‘at-will’ relationship of an employee status,” said Ganz. You have to make sure it doesn’t change that relationship.”

During the notice period the company should set guidelines on the departing employee’s access to the company, its systems and processes. Managers can set guidelines on what the worker’s role at the company such as consulting with a replacement or cross training other workers.

“You should decide for what purpose the employee would be staying on,” said Ganz. “You might want them to be available for assistance, but not actually come in or have access to the systems.”
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