Most of our readers probably don’t recognize the name Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, even though she’s a fairly significant figure in U.S. history. Born one second after midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, she can lay claim to being the very first baby boomer. And recently, she made headlines as the first person from that generation to register for Social Security payouts.
This could be viewed as a symbolic event for learning leaders, as it represents the approach of what some observers have wryly referred to as the “silver tsunami” — that is, the flood of 80 million-plus boomers from the workforce to retirement. And a good deal of the discussion in this industry regarding the problems that will be caused by the disappearance of all that institutional knowledge has verged on the hysterical.
And yet, for all that worrying, it appears that organizations aren’t doing that much to stop the “brain drain.” According to a recent poll conducted by training services provider Novations Inc., barely one-quarter of companies are presently making any effort at all to transfer knowledge from retiring baby boomers to younger employees. Further, 44 percent of respondents said they had no plans to do so in the future.
In spite of these dismal findings, it seems more people are realizing that there is a problem, which is a good start, said Tim Vigue, an executive consultant at Novations.
“I think people are slowly waking up,” he said. “But my suspicion is those who haven’t done anything and don’t have any plans to probably have their heads in the sand a bit, and are thinking that it isn’t going to be a problem for them. I also think some of them get so caught up in their day-to-day duties that they can’t see the forest for the trees and aren’t able to step back far enough to do that analysis.”
Another issue is that, of the organizations that are trying to prevent the loss of knowledge brought on by the exiting boomers, only 4 percent actually have a formal process in place. The remaining 23 percent are preserving knowledge informally.
“They’re probably talking about more word-of-mouth, on-the-job, casual communication,” Vigue said. “That has the potential for a lot of holes. How do you know that the right information is being passed to the right people, who will actually be able to use it?
“One of the things that popped up at me was the issue of the 29 percent of people who said they haven’t done it but are planning to. Are they going to do that formally or informally? That’s why we’re beginning to see people talking about knowledge management systems.”
Vigue explained that because of highly homogeneous labor pools in certain sectors, some industries will hardly feel the effects of boomer retirements, whereas others will be hit especially hard.
“There will be some portion of that group that doesn’t have a problem because they have a generally younger workforce, and don’t have a lot of older workers. You might see this at some of the high-tech firms. Then you see other industries — government, utilities, and oil and gas, for example — that happen to have a lot of older workers with long tenures and are therefore much more likely to exit. They’re probably the ones who have woken up to it sooner because the problem is much more obvious.”
Some companies, particularly those that don’t have a great deal of intellectual property or technical knowledge within the enterprise, might not feel a pressing need to retain the insights and experience of older employees.
“I’m not necessarily convinced that’s the case,” Vigue said. “There are a whole lot of things that folks who’ve been around awhile know and understand that might not be tied to specific product knowledge or intellectual property. It’s ‘how we get things done around here,’ and being able to transfer that is pretty key.”
Because both organizations’ and individuals’ circumstances are unique, someone should be tasked with finding out who the key people retiring are (and exactly when they plan to leave) before knowledge-transfer initiatives take effect.
“It would be great if they did a comprehensive analysis of their demographics and knew what percentage of people were planning to retire on time, and therefore, knew whether or not they were at risk in this area,” Vigue said. “That doesn’t just mean that you’ve got X percent of people who are going to be 65, because you may have some people who are going to work until they’re 75 years old. But the only way you’re going to know that is if you talk to those people.”
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