Managing the departure of key knowledge holders

For more than two centuries, the manufacturing industry has adopted new technologies and provided new jobs for workers. Today, the industry is experiencing exciting and exponential change, as technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and Internet of Things (IoT) are rapidly changing the workplace. While some predicted that these new technologies would eliminate jobs, we have found the reverse—more jobs are actually being created. With increased complexity and changing production techniques a lot of this new key knowledge carried by just a few employees – the so called knowledge holders. 

Losing knowledge holders can lead to institutional forgetting

An aging workforce, increased job mobility, and alternative work arrangements are converging to create a clear and present danger: institutional forgetting through the loss of key knowledge holders. Institutional “forgetting” impacts every facet of the operation, from onboarding and training to innovation and proactive decision-making. The best – the only – way to weather the storm is to capture the knowledge of your key knowledge holders.

Every business has some key individuals who are important to the company’s success. In a small company, it starts with the founder. A successful salesperson is important; the head of production or operations is important. As businesses grow, the number of people critical to ongoing success increases. The loss of key people is a great vulnerability that can wake up senior leadership at 4 a.m.

An expert worker talking to an employee

Knowledge loss due to a demographic shift

In the coming years, around half of the population who have more than 25 years of experience on the job will retire. Every industry is affected. All businesses should, therefore, act quickly and implement the following three points: succession planning, employee engagement, and knowledge management. This will avoid a great deal of disruption for businesses as well as unnecessary and sometimes very costly mistakes. In the end, companies save cold hard cash with professional knowledge transfer because it allows a business to continue running smoothly.

Reduce your risk

Your company may well run on a few select knowledge holders. It begs the question: what if they are not here? What if they left, or you had to replace them? With just one or two all-star players off the field, you may find yourself in dire straits.

Reduce the risk: identify your key knowledge holders and start extracting their knowledge. The simplest way to do so is to interview them and record their answers. How do you do this…? What is the process for that…? Which clients are the most responsive? What would you do in this situation or that situation?

Ask questions – and then ask more questions. They help you clarify who is who and prepare for managing any departure from a key knowledge holder. Document what these key knowledge holders do and make sure that you are able to pass on that knowledge in case of their departure.