don’t allow competitive edge to fly out with retirees!

06/07/2010

by carolyn mathews

Recently I wrote about the importance of knowledge transfer in large organizations, particularly for those employees who near retirement. This past week, HeraldNet.com (an online news source based in Everett, WA) published an article regarding retirement and possible loss of knowledge within The Boeing Company, one of the premiere companies here in the Seattle region. Concerned about the number of engineers who are, or soon will be, eligible for retirement, the company is taking steps to encourage the “aging” workforce to share their knowledge with others.

The company recognizes the need for programs that encourage the sharing of vast amounts of knowledge acquired by employees over many years, and sometimes decades. One way it has done this is through the Boeing Technical Fellowship program. Designed to recognize expertise of Boeing engineers and scientists who do not follow a management track, candidates complete a rigorous process in hopes of being awarded one of three Technical Fellow titles. Fewer than 5 percent of Boeing engineers and scientists achieve this title, yet these people represent the creativity and innovation that gives Boeing its competitive edge. Indeed, Technical Fellows are recognized within Boeing and throughout the engineering industry as the crème de la crème.

Among the many requirements during the application process, Technical Fellow candidates must provide evidence of how they share their knowledge with others and how this benefits the company. This may encompass mentorship and/or other avenues, such as publishing articles in technical journals or being recognized as a subject expert outside of the organization. Once Technical Fellow status is attained, members of this elite group are expected to continue sharing their knowledge. Through the Technical Fellow process, Boeing provides a structure that not only encourages, but requires, those with technical expertise to share their knowledge with others.

The HeraldNet article is of interest, in part, because it drives home the point that the importance of knowledge sharing is not just relevant to executives who are starting succession planning. The sharing of one’s expertise is necessary at many levels throughout the organization. In the article, a Boeing representative suggests it takes an engineer at least 5 years to become “high value.” In other words, someone with 5 years experience at Boeing may have unique knowledge that should be shared. Further, I contend knowledge sharing is not of importance just to those in the manufacturing industry. Any organization has employees who have acquired knowledge that helps provide a competitive edge – otherwise, the organization would not be successful!

Here are some simple steps organizations can implement to ensure the sharing of pertinent knowledge:

  1. Develop a corporate culture that acknowledges employee expertise acquired over time to be an organizational asset and the company’s intellectual property. Therefore, it is meant to be shared and utilized by others.
  2. Consider employees at all levels and all stages of their career, but be sure to harness the knowledge of those who are near retirement age. Learn which employees are invited to speak at conferences, quoted as industry experts, have obtained patents for their work, or publish in professional journals.
  3. Make knowledge sharing a goal for the annual reviews of those who have been identified as subject matter experts. Organizations can provide opportunities for this to happen. Mentoring, in-house workshops or leading teams on specific projects all can help employees share their expertise.

Companies that define knowledge sharing as part of the company culture will survive demographic retirement bubbles, downsizing in tough economic times, or simple attrition of key employees. Acknowledge expertise and reward the sharing of it. Remember, knowledge sharing ensures the longer continuity of key knowledge, so organizations can maintain and further develop their competitive edge.

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