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November/December 2014

Capturing the Knowledge Most at Risk When Employees Leave


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When an employee leaves an organization, it is usually up to the line manager to handle the transfer of knowledge to the person’s successor. However, as the baby boom generation begins to retire in massive numbers, organizations face an unprecedented loss of essential employee knowledge, threatening productivity and innovation. And employers are recognizing the need for a more objective, systematic, and consistent approach to capturing and transferring knowledge whenever employees leave — no matter what the reason. Mercer/View talked with Brian Monette, CEO of Transition-Path, Inc., and Tom Jacob, a senior partner at Mercer and leader of the firm’s Research and Intelligence Products, about how organizations are addressing these challenges.

Q: WHY IS TALENT TRANSITION EMERGING AS A CRITICAL ISSUE FOR EMPLOYERS?

BRIAN MONETTE: We’ve been hearing the warning about baby boomer retirements for several years, but now the reality is here. Organizations are suddenly finding they need to replace 20-year and 30-year employees with people who don’t have that kind of depth. And they’re starting to ask, “What have we been doing to prepare ourselves for this?”

TOM JACOB: What’s at stake is that there is an awful lot of experience — in terms of how to get things done — walking out the door.

Q: WHY ARE ORGANIZATIONS BECOMING DISSATISFIED WITH THE TRADITIONAL APPROACH TO TRANSFERRING THIS KNOWLEDGE?

T.J.: The task is usually left to the line manager, which means that everyone does it differently, and some do it more effectively than others. There is no best practice; there is nothing systematic. It’s not just technical knowledge that’s being lost — it’s also process knowledge and relationship knowledge.

B.M.: Organizations are realizing they need to do a better job of transferring key employee knowledge — not just with the baby boomer retirements, but whenever it is at risk of being lost. They see this risk in many areas, from executive succession to post-merger integration, when there is often employee churn.

Q: WHAT IS A BETTER WAY OF ADDRESSING THE RISK?

B.M.: Organizations need to go beyond what’s in a manual or a job description. Successful employees in the organization develop a base of knowledge over the course of their careers that is often not written down or well-understood beyond an individual employee. But this knowledge is critical to how people do their jobs.

For example, a manufacturing company might have a number of long-term engineering employees. Their skill set is their ability to recognize challenges that they’ve seen previously, and apply that historical knowledge to correcting issues that come at them day to day. This requires a solid understanding of the conditions that are being presented to them, as opposed to being told, “Here is how you do the work, step by step.”

Q: HOW CAN THE KEY KNOWLEDGE BE CAPTURED DURING TALENT TRANSITIONS?

B.M.: We’ve found that an effective approach is to have an independent analyst interview the employee and build a chart — a knowledge map — that visually depicts what the person does. This works best when the document is created in real time, so the employee can see it evolving. The employee is then asked, “Is this a fair reflection of what you do?” That question helps employees articulate their actual roles in the organization.

It’s possible to do this sort of interview in just an hour. It’s best, clearly, when both the affected employee and his or her manager are involved. But if the employee is no longer available to participate, then a group of peers and the manager can participate on the employee’s behalf to create this documentation of the role.

T.J.: During this process, it is important to surface other information that the manager or future jobholder really needs to know, such as a process that is not as effective as it should be or organizational blockages that require workarounds. That usually doesn’t get captured in the traditional way of transitioning knowledge from one employee to another.

Q: WHY IS IT HELPFUL TO HAVE INDEPENDENT ANALYSTS, RATHER THAN MANAGERS, COLLECT THIS INFORMATION?

B.M.: An independent party is skilled at drawing out the key employee knowledge that’s at risk. And as opposed to managers, they can use a consistent methodology for every employee, whether the person is a forklift driver or a scientist.

T.J.: If you and I work for the same company, there’s a certain shorthand we develop, and there are certain things we think don’t need to be captured. But the reality is that the job will most likely be handed to someone who is coming from outside the organization or the department — and so those things do need to be captured and passed along.

Q: HOW IS THE KNOWLEDGE TRANSFERRED TO THE EMPLOYEE’S SUCCESSOR? 

T.J.: The person coming into the job uses the document created between the analyst and the departing employee to understand the role. The document serves as a game plan for the new person and the manager — it helps them work out an agenda and determine the priority areas that need to be addressed first. The document also provides the manager with a recruitment tool to assess candidates for the role. Probably no one is ready to drop into the job, and the new person will need a development plan to be successful. The document helps the manager create that plan.

Q: HOW ELSE DOES THE MANAGER BENEFIT?

T.J.: One immediate benefit that we have seen for the manager is the opportunity to redesign the job. A manager may not realize that some aspects of the role are being performed that no longer add value. Eliminating these aspects, or combining them with another role somewhere in the organization, can produce immediate improvement in productivity.

B.M.: Managers also are able to identify the knowledge that is most at risk. They are now fortified to manage accordingly, to set expectations, to say to their own managers, “These are the areas we need to focus on, and here’s where we’re not going to be able to deliver.” The key is to deliver sustainable performance during the transition from one employee to another. The process of capturing and transferring key employee knowledge makes that possible, and all parties — the employer, the manager, and the successor employee — will benefit from this more structured and disciplined approach to talent transitions.

 

Learn more about a more effective approach to talent transition.

 

CONTACTS

Tom Jacob (Philadelphia)
Senior Partner, Talent
+1 215 982 4254
E-mail
Brian Monette (Toronto)
CEO, Transition-Path
+1 866 251 2056
E-mail

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