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Generations on the Move: 3 Ways to Ensure Knowledge Transfer

by Catherine Savage on

In many ways, the Millennial (and post-Millennial) workforce is taking us all into unchartered territory. One of the challenges of Millennial leaders is the potential of being tapped for roles when they have fewer years of experience in an organization or industry, and possess less technical expertise than leaders who currently operate the business.

This challenge is intriguing, as it is not a problem that organizations have faced before. The Society for Human Resource Management, as well as Bureau of Labor Statistics, have spent significant time understanding the changing demographics of the workforce, and believe we are entering a new type of workplace.

To solve this problem, a lot of focus has been placed on how to prepare this generation to take on technical and leadership responsibility. But there is, of course, the other side of the coin: how do we leverage the knowledge and skills of those individuals already in the role, who possess the desired traits we’d like our new leaders to have, and will soon be leaving the workforce to the Millennials?

The most obvious solution is to make sure those valuable skills and experiences are transferred to the newest members of the workforce. However, staffing shortages, the tyranny of the urgent, and a host of other organizational issues can get in the way of passing critical information and expertise on.

So what can organizations do to facilitate knowledge transfer?

1. Be deliberate

Solely using on-the-job training (OJT) is not going to cut it. Knowledge transfer takes more effort and energy than what can amount to simply hoping skills will be learned through OJT. This is not to discount the experience that kind of training can provide, but it’s an incomplete solution.

Part of the appeal of technical experts is that they have experienced a wide variety of situations that fall within their domain, and thus they are able to adapt and resolve issues and problems quickly. However, with OJT, there is no guarantee that lesser experienced team members paired with an expert will experience, observe, and learn from every possible technical situation that can arise.

Therefore, the first step in ensuring successful knowledge transfer is for leaders to create a thoughtful and deliberate plan for how they will ensure these experiences are shared with less technically skilled employees.

2. Go beyond “just telling”

Knowledge transfer offers the opportunity to be a bit creative. Think back to high school or college: sure, a lecture was the easiest way to disseminate information, but was it the most engaging? Did you learn the most through lectures? What other hands-on, creative solutions taught you important lessons you needed to know?

Considering using job aids, establishing regular lunch and learns, or taking videos of unique experiences that are rare and, as a result, harder to train people on. These methods can be an informative, and more engaging, way to share information.

The benefit? The more engaging the messages, the more likely people are to remember the information contained in them. An article from the Harvard Business Review followed an organization who used storytelling as a means for promoting knowledge transfer. They created a program to help employees make connections with others, as well as share important details and facts, through the power of stories. As a result of these connections, employees were more likely to absorb the information relayed to them.

As mentioned above, OJT doesn’t always provide exposure to every unique circumstance that can arise. However, experience-based learning is often a more engaging way for individuals to pick up important knowledge about their work. To bridge this gap, organizations can also consider findings ways to simulate these experiences and provide low-risk ways of testing the skills of employees, with instruction and coaching by more experienced employees.

For example, individuals interested in running the control room of a nuclear power plant must undergo an intense, 18-month program to learn how the nuclear plant operates. Embedded in this program are several months spent in a simulator with guidance and oversight conducted by Senior Reactor Operators. This immersive experience provides a way to help train individuals on issues the nuclear plant can experience without the actual threat occurring, as well as learn from highly technically skilled individuals regarding plant operations.

3. Keep technically skilled employees engaged

Realistically, it won’t always be possible for an organization to transfer all the knowledge and skills from one employee to another before that employee leaves the organization. However, it might be possible to keep technical experts engaged in the organization, even after they depart.

Harvard Business Review examined the current talent challenges facing organizations and whether or not the idea of retirement was an outdated concept. According to their findings, baby-boomers often want to remain part of the organization for various reasons (e.g., social, financial, personal fulfillment) and organizations should look to modify work arrangements in order to keep these skilled individuals.

Based on these findings, an emerging solution is for organizations to create a mentor program that utilizes individuals who are at or near retirement. These programs allow the organization to continue to tap into the skills of the expert, for the expert to continue feeling valued for their skills, and for the newly employed to learn from a highly skilled individual.

Companies such as PNC and AT&T, have created mentorship opportunities that have focused on engaging the older and younger workforce in cross-generational relationships. Anecdotally, these experiences have allowed the older generation to impart wisdom, business knowledge, and coaching to their lesser experienced colleagues, as well as set these younger individuals up to take on expanded assignments and new responsibilities.

Organizations may also consider creating programs that allow older workers to transition to retirement more slowly over time, as well as engage them in special, as-needed projects when they arise. For example, one organization we work with offers a part-time, on-call (PTOC) option to retired workers who possess highly specialized skills and knowledge. PTOC allows for retired workers to provide short-term support on projects where their skills are relevant, as well as mentor current employees during their participation.

Keep Focused & Stay Proactive

The goal is clear to organizations: keep the invaluable knowledge, skills, and abilities within the organization. Of course, the process for doing this is a little bit fuzzier. It will require organizations to take a proactive and involved approach to determining how to retain that critical technical expertise.

It also means organizations have to focus as much attention on retaining and utilizing their older employees in new and innovative ways, as they do on preparing their millennial workforce for success. Given some dedicated attention, organizations can involve employees at all stages of work life in this process and reap the benefits of building a more engaged and teaching-oriented environment.

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