How to Safeguard Institutional Knowledge in the Face of the Great Resignation

Image credit: iStockphoto/Nuthawut Somsuk

Whether it’s health and safety concerns, new expectations for work-life balance, or COVID-19 protocols, the extent of this problem is severe. Over the next 12 months, 73% of CEOs expect a shortage of workers or skills to disrupt their business, and 51% said retaining talent is one of their biggest challenges. When employees leave, they take with them the insight into the processes and relationships they’ve accumulated over time. These losses can be costly for employers.

The departure of just one engineer led to substantial production delays for a company’s flagship product, a defense contractor told us. That engineer worked alone with a narrow focus on production, leaving little opportunity for the organization to share or document her know-how. When she left, so too did her deep technical understanding.

More than a dozen executives have told us that similar situations are making it difficult to maintain steady business operations elsewhere. The best thing companies can do is prepare in advance for an exodus.

HR executives will take the lead in this work, but all management and staff can and should help retain the company’s collective memory. Design this process around keeping mission-critical information — the rest isn’t worth the time and effort. Determine how to capture these important intellectual assets, promote a culture of continuous knowledge transfer, and reward employees who help execute this initiative.

How to Evaluate and Capture Knowledge

Knowledge typically falls into two categories: explicit and tacit.

Explicit refers to the information found in records, data files, customer relationship management systems, and other physical cloud locations. It is typically the easiest to capture and transfer.

Tacit, however, refers to unwritten information that is learned through experience, such as a tenured sales executive’s client intelligence. It’s bad for business to lose it, given the amount of time it takes to gain and its strategic importance to the company.

Promote Continuous Knowledge Transfer

The most efficient way to retain employee knowledge is to incorporate sharing into ongoing organizational practices. Here are a few of the proven ways to execute this strategy.

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Embed Sharing Through a Community of Practice (CoP)

The purpose of a CoP is to share and apply knowledge over time, providing the perfect vehicle for its long-term management.

In 2013, ConocoPhillips, a U.S.-based oil and gas company, created a network of excellence (NoE) to address targeted, measurable business objectives through peer-to-peer problem-solving. While helping to meet company goals, the network, made up of a global community of staff, also shares expertise with each other. On one occasion, the group set out to create and implement standards around plant maintenance business processes. After one year of collaboration, the NoE established enterprisewide standards for these processes and trained over 1,000 employees with digitally recorded training modules.

Beyond creating the CoPs, functional leaders must formalize the ways members communicate, share and retain information so knowledge is not lost. In 2016, at Xerox, a U.S.-based office equipment manufacturer, the HR team selected videos to do just that. Employees created actionable, unscripted, and on-the-job training videos to share with their colleagues, known internally as XstreamVideo. And to promote consumption, an HR manager tagged and embedded each video within existing workflows and portals, making it available for on-demand learning.

This method worked; three years after its launch, XstreamVideo surpassed its goal of having 70% of its content created by employees.

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You can also encourage collaboration through alternative methods, such as holding regular virtual brown-bag lunches, mentoring programs, executive shadowing, and networking groups or workshops.

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Reward Employee Adoption

Persuade staff to get onboard by tying knowledge transfer to performance expectations or by giving prizes to those who practice it.

On performance, invite employees to share instances in which their contributions have improved their colleagues’ skills or capabilities, for example. Incorporate the results into the annual review process.

In 2013, CNA, a U.S-based financial corporation, created a program where employees could apply to become “knowledge advocates.” To signal the importance of this position to the organization, HR created role-specific goals to incorporate into the employee’s annual performance objectives.

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You can also offer special rewards and incentives to recognize staff members who actively participate in sharing what they know. To that end, Texas Instruments, a U.S.-based technology company, created an annual award named, “Not Invented Here, But I Did It Anyway,” to praise those who use other employees’ ideas. And at Buckman Labs, a U.S.-based chemical company, managers give the top 150 knowledge sharers a new laptop and a resort trip.

This article by Laural Reul, Gartner's senior specialist, originally appeared in Gartner Business Quarterly in Q1 2022. Download the full issue here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of DigitalWorkforceTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/Nuthawut Somsuk; Charts: Gartner