Human Resources: Your employees will leave at some point. What’s your risk?

The Human Resources columns in our Expert Network section are designed to address topics that will help you manage your employees. Ensuring the skills and knowledge of your employee "talent" is top-notch is a vital part of your company’s success. Use these tactics to establish a knowledge transfer system so company data is not lost when an employee leaves.
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The Human Resources columns in our Expert Network section are designed to address topics that will help you manage your employees. Ensuring the skills and knowledge of your employee "talent" is top-notch is a vital part of your company’s success. Using insider knowledge and expertise, Generator Group's articles about talent management are designed to present thought-provoking ideas, information and workforce trends on how you acquire, retain or develop your workforce that will drive business success.

While not on the same level as the ‘90s, employees again have a pent-up need for playing musical chairs with their jobs. In the height of the recession employees hunkered down and hung onto their current positions, but more and more people are open to conversation again.

It’s a mistake to think you can manage a person’s decision to leave by trying to change their minds; that only delays the departure. (What does work is changing the motivators for leaving, such as modifying the style of the employees’ leaders or offering advancement opportunities…but that’s another topic for another day.) Basically, we need to accept to a certain extent that workforces will be dispersed, employees will be mobile, and they’re more likely to exit our organizations.

A more important question to consider is if some of your staff moves on, how will that affect your business? These employees are the intangible assets, but assets nonetheless. Would that risk of knowledge loss, reduced network contacts, or the lack of crucial skills and capacity lead to some level of corporate incompetence?

It boils down to that pesky issue of knowledge transfer.

Today’s state of knowledge management

The most current methods of capturing or sharing knowledge are focused on boarding programs, mentoring and policy documentation -- but the results have been just so-so.

On the face of it, knowledge management is relatively simple. Knowledge can be exchanged through dialogue (i.e., connecting) or in written or recorded form (i.e., collecting).

The good news is that we have more technology options today than we had in the past. The newest technologies are offering more flexibility in data storage methods and access. The bad news is that there are still age-old problems.

The people problem

While technology can capture documents, adult learning is enhanced through social interaction. And there is the rub. Take at look at some common issues when people share information:

There’s natural resistance. Knowledge is guarded, hidden, shared in miserly portions or outright refused to be passed on.

Nothing valuable ever makes it into the database -- people search but they do not upload, saying they are all “too busy.”

People learn and share knowledge differently. And people don’t know what they know. Acronyms, labels and terms change over time. In addition, we adults need to understand not only how to do something, but what else was considered, and why the chosen method was selected. In other words, we need context to truly learn.


So how to deal with knowledge transfer?

First, you need to grade the risk, then deal with each level appropriately. For example, not every person leaving represents the same knowledge risk to the organization. For instance, is the knowledge critical to current operations or future operations and performance, and does anyone else know it or even part of it? Choose a knowledge retention mechanism that fits the risk. Where the risk is low, little effort is required. Where the risk is vital -- for example, no documentation exists and the person leaving is the sole knowledge-holder -- more investment of time and resources is important.

There are three traditional means to managing knowledge transfer risk:

  1. Tap the knowledge of departing employees. Map out days or weeks before departure to focus on tips, hints, effective practices, knowledge of people and reference sources. If a successor in the business has been identified, then this successor needs to be involved in the knowledge retention process. Make it clear that the role of the successor is not just to learn, but also to document the learning.

  2. Eliminate the risk, by decoupling the knowledge from those who have the knowledge as a regular course of doing business. Make it part of the job, not “busy work” to document the “what” and the “how” after significant work projects are done, new procedures are tested, etc. Include this expectation in the review of management in critical functions.

  3. Retain access to the people who have the knowledge:

>> Retirements: If the knowledge-holders have retired, then they can be re-employed on a part-time basis providing advice, mentoring and solutions to problems.

>> Transfer within the company: If people are moving jobs within the company, they can be used as mentors for new staff. There will need to be a discussion with their new manager, to ensure that they are allowed time for mentorship duties.

>> If employees leave for another job, it depends on where they are headed: If they are going to a better paid or different job in another company, then it may not be possible to retain their services; however, you can inquire and ask them to secure an agreement with their new employer to “double-dip” for an agreed period of time. If they are leaving to become a consultant or freelancer, you will likely be able to buy their knowledge back at a price for the period of time needed.

Don’t wait. Turnover is coming, and there is no quick fix to knowledge transfer. This is an example of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Implementing a knowledge retention program requires an investment in time and training. If the knowledge loss represents a significant risk, then a knowledge retention program represents a lower cost in both dollars and your corporation’s business -- bringing the management of change necessary to reduce that risk to an acceptable level.

Generator Group is an integrated talent management services firm delivering executive search and talent management consulting to brands in apparel, footwear, hardgoods and softgoods, retail and more. For more information about the group’s work or working with it, go to



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