Intelligence Lost: The Boomers Are Exiting

The U.S. business community is facing a war of intelligence attrition. Fortune 500s will see countless experienced knowledge workers walk out the door over the next two decades. The U.S. Armed Forces are losing millions of officers and key personnel to retirement. Some 900,000 white collar workers from the executive branch of government, and another 5,400 federal executives, will be up for retirement by 2016, according to a 2007 study from the video conferencing company Tandberg.

A 2007 McKinsey Quarterly survey found that the Baby Boom generation is "the best-educated, most highly skilled aging workforce in U.S. history." Although they’re only about 40 percent of the workforce, they comprise more than half of all managers and almost half of all professionals, such as doctors and lawyers.

As the boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) retires, executive leadership faces a daunting task: how to ensure key intelligence and know-how doesn’t walk out the door when they retire. The loss of business intelligence and corporate knowledge, especially in R&D-focused organizations, could amount to billions of dollars in lost intellectual capital. Leaders must act fast.

Even those organizations with young employees must consider knowledge management. Knowledge loss also occurs as key personnel resign or are lost to illness or tragedy, taking with them a trove of irreplaceable knowledge.


The question becomes: How do leaders keep the older generation actively engaged so that the process of extracting and archiving key information is interesting, challenging, and rewarding?

1. Establish and share rules of and rationales for engagement. Determine how information gathering will be accomplished—for example, by questionnaire, survey, online system, etc. Will salespeople drop into the contact management system such key nuggets as the name of a client’s administrative or the client’s birthday, or his preference to be called Robert, not Bob, thus strengthening key relationships? If so, be sure to tell the entire organization to do this—and why this should be done.

2. Scan the personnel landscape. Create a database charting individual or shared "expertise clusters" across the organization. Use relationship software or "spiders"to track knowledge by department and employee. Learn, cross-reference, and document where key knowledge or competencies reside. If someone searched a key term or phrase by project or product, the specific individual’s name should come up.

3. Set up a database or system for collecting information. This is especially important in larger organizations. It’s not enough to do a "knowledge dump" from one person to another. Resignation or illness could strike, leaving the company in the same situation again. Create a sustainable "knowledge library" system to capture key data, information, and processes. Databasing solutions can be as simple as a shared Excel spread sheet or use of enterprise collaboration platforms, such as Confluence, Socialtext, or TWiki.

4. Create a home for—and invite—nuanced info. At my old company, we manufactured screw-on pumps that turned liquid soap into foam. Early on, clients called about "leakers," pumps that loosened during shipment. Our president discovered the right amount of "let-off torque" to keep them in place. Because the amount of necessary torque varied by bottle type, such experience-borne knowledge could not be written in customer instructions. Soon after, our president took ill and left the company—but not before writing this key bit of information in a reference manual used by everyone who has come after him.

5. Build bridges early on. Encourage interaction between the generations. This can foster an esprit de corps and facilitate a transfer of knowledge across ranks and age groups.

6. Host events to bring people together. Monthly breakfasts, after-work happy hour, "spit & whittle" chats, and other informal exchanges can create opportunities for verbal or hands-on knowledge sharing. Hold a seminar in effective knowledge-sharing principles and practices, and invite the entire organization.

7. Use social media and online tools. Create a closed group on LinkedIn, subscribe to an online whiteboard or collaborative application, create a spreadsheet or chart on Google Docs, set up a blog, forum, or company intranet where retirees can return online and enter insights they recall after leaving the organization. Don’t be afraid to "crowd source" new ideas from retirees by sending e-blasts or messages via group tools.

8. Make knowledge sharing a continual, perpetual habit, not a one-time act. Remember, no tidbit is too small. Even informal practices—like a workflow system that has proven effective—must be put into writing for archival and sharing purposes.

Encourage people to document and share what they know. Invite, even set up incentives for, retirees to return to share solutions later when they may recall something they’ve done in the past.

Boomers are retiring. Years of hard data and soft know-how is preparing to leave your organization. Are you prepared to avoid the vacuum?

Jeff Zbar, a journalist and copy writer with, contributed to this story.

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