Knowledge Transfer Basics: 5 Tips to Avoid the Brain Drain

Knowledge Transfer Basics: 5 Tips to Avoid the Brain Drain

We’re on the cusp of a monumental sea change in the workforce. Truth be told, it’s a great time to be a succession planning keynote speaker—the working world has never needed our guidance more than it does now! But with more than 80 million baby boomers planning to retire before 2030, we’re about to face what might be the biggest knowledge gap in history.

What’s more, as I’ve learned in my travels on the succession planning keynote speaker circuit, it often doesn’t matter what generation your current leadership represents, or whether yours is a family business or a public enterprise—if you fail to facilitate a proper knowledge transfer before they move onto the next phase, you’ll be faced with a dangerous gap all the same. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way, in my family business turnaround and beyond!

1. Start Mentoring. Yesterday.

It’s natural for your older employees to bristle at the laid-back approach—and resent the superior technical savvy—of their younger colleagues. But it’s also critical that these different generations work to find a common ground, so that the rising workforce can benefit from the incumbents’ vast storehouse of institutional knowledge. Knowledge transfer is one of the key fundamentals of succession planning, and it’s impossible to start the process too early.

Mentoring is a wonderful way to do this. During the years when I was running a group of car dealerships, I made sure that each department manager had a designated “number two” who would attend meetings in their place if they were out sick, on vacation, in training or busy with a customer issue. This gave the mentors the opportunity to lead by example, and their mentees a chance to learn while doing—and the program was nearly seamless.

2. Incentivize Replace-ability. 

Sounds crazy on the surface, doesn’t it? But one of the best decisions I made with regard to my mentorship program was to put a system in place that strongly encouraged managers to groom their replacements—by not even considering them for promotion until this was done.

A nice side effect of this policy was a general reinforcement of abundance mindset throughout the organisation. Instead of operating under the scarcity mindset, the destructive fear that sharing skills and knowledge would reduce one’s personal worth within the company (which can unfortunately be a common mentality amongst older employees), my teams learned that everyone benefits from knowledge transfer. Mentees gained crucial job-specific information, while mentors learned about new technologies and emerging trends from their younger “digital native” counterparts. Win-win indeed!

3. Foster a Culture of Daily Learning. 

Making time for learning within the organisation can also help to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge. It’s a complaint I hear often on the succession planning keynote speaker circuit: “There’s simply no time for proper knowledge transfer to happen!” To those time-crunched folks (and let’s face it, that’s all of us), I’d say this: the time is yours to make.

In my car dealership business, we used to have a series of informal breakfast meetings. Myself and one person from each department would discuss what was going on in the business, new industry trends we’d come across, and other interesting recent developments. This basically forced our leadership to keep a finger on the pulse of the business—always a good thing—while also giving us the opportunity to share knowledge across the organisation.

I’m also a big fan of “lunch and learn” events, in which the company hires an outside speaker or subject-matter expert, to be followed by some Q&A. These events can be very effective at breaking down barriers and creating a culture of learning—especially in the online world we now live in! My experience with these, as a speaker and as a participant, is that shorter is better. A half-hour of presentation followed by 10–15 minutes of discussion is ideal; it doesn’t significantly cut into the working day, and is short enough to sidestep Zoom fatigue.

4. Make Room for All Kinds of Knowledge.

When you’re first establishing a learning culture across your organisation, quite a bit of the knowledge transfer will be factual…and that’s fine! Every company has reams of information that’s specific to the operation of its unique business and industry, and there simply must be policies and practices in place to ensure that it’s passed down to the next generation.

This is explicit knowledge, and it’s important—but it’s only half of the equation. Every business also has another category that’s not exactly know-how…it’s more like know-why. This is implicit knowledge, and in my opinion, it’s an even more important component of knowledge transfer. Think of it this way: if explicit knowledge is a step-by-step procedural manual that teaches you how to do your job, then implicit knowledge is the natural instinct and personal insight that teaches you how to do the job well. Of course, the incoming generation will put their own spin on this wisdom. But it should be captured all the same.

5. Position Training for Generational Preference.

To avoid a “you kids get off my lawn” situation, you’d be wise to put a little spin on your knowledge transfer proposal—and this spin will be different for each generation. Many Boomers are defined by their work, so appealing to their pride by stressing the “preservation of their important legacy” should help smooth the way.

Stuck in the middle as always, Generation X is positioned to be either your outgoing or incoming group; either way, these highly independent latch-key kids will appreciate a hands-off approach, and the freedom to create their own teaching or learning plan. And, while Millennials aren’t impressed by age or title, they are incredibly open to receiving wisdom—especially when learning involves harnessing new trends and technology.

And Gen Z? The business world is just beginning to understand how to engage the youngest generation in the workforce. They’ve never known a world without an Internet or a 24-hour news cycle, and they know not to trust at least half of what they hear. They’ve also grown up in the age of user-generated content, so they have a natural mistrust of slick, overproduced content. My advice is to set some clear expectations, give them loose guidelines, and then let THEM ask the questions; just be sure to set aside ample time, because they are CURIOUS.

In closing, it’s a fact that as the Baby Boomer generation rotates out of the workplace and is replaced by younger generations, your company is at risk of losing valuable knowledge. If you follow the above simple steps, you are going to be far more prepared when it’s time to say goodbye to an experienced member of your team—and ready to embrace a new chapter with greater diversity, new ways of doing things and a dynamic future for your organisation.

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Related Topics:
Business Contingency Planning: What, Why + How
Stepping Out, Not Down: Why Your Aging CEO Won’t Retire
The Role of the Board During Family Business Succession

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