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23 Jan. 2015 | Comments (0)
Asked if he would be willing to share his hard-earned knowledge with others in the company before he retired, the engineer laughed. “Why would I do that?” he asked. “First off, I don’t owe this company anything more. I’ve given 35 years to this outfit, and I hope they miss me when I’m gone. Or,” he added with a bit of a twinkle, “hire me back at double pay as a consultant.”
There we had it in one concise capsule: a few of the reasons why retirees refuse to share their experience-based, business-critical knowledge — what we call deep smarts. By definition, those deep smarts are still valuable to the organization and underlie future as well as current success. They may be technical, as in the engineering example, but they can also be managerial, as when an experienced manager has hard-earned skills in problem identification and solution, crucial relationships with customers, or a detailed understanding of how to innovate.
If such knowledge leaves with retirees, it may be lost for good. In our research on knowledge transfer, we have seen companies greatly disadvantaged, if not crippled, by knowledge loss. Certainly, some expert knowledge may be outdated or irrelevant by the time its possessors are eligible for retirement, but not the skills, know-how, and capabilities that underlie critical operations — both routine and innovative. Organizations cannot afford to lose these deep smarts.
Lack of time or resources can, of course, constrain knowledge transfer. But one barrier to passing deep smarts along to the next generation that is often unaddressed is the expert’s inclination to hoard knowledge. Financial incentives, personal ego, and discontent or frustration with the company are three of the top reasons individuals choose to keep their expertise to themselves. But they’re also three issues that managers can actually change.
Let’s start with financial incentives. Many companies hire retirees back to do the same jobs they have always done but with double pay: consulting income tacked on to their pension. In the survey we conducted as part of our research for Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your company’s Deep Smarts, 42% of respondents reported that kind of revolving door was a typical way of retaining knowledge. The moment that the time limit restricting rehiring retirees expires, the retiree clips his ID badge back on — and heads for the same door he’s been walking through for decades, again with little or no incentive for mentoring successors.
Hiring back retirees to run critical operations is shortsighted. Not only does it cost the company more financially, but it also doesn’t guarantee the successful transfer of knowledge. Eventually those deeply smart people will depart for good, leaving the same knowledge gap behind them. There are precedents for eliminating the financial motive to hoard. GE’s Global Research Centers, for example, now hire back pensioners almost exclusively to mentor and share their knowledge with more junior colleagues, not to return to operational positions. This was a relatively recent — and contentious — change. But it was essential to pass on to the next generation of scientists and engineers, those deep smarts that had led to thousands of patents underlying GE’s products and reputation. In addition, GEGRC put a knowledge transfer program in place for those still working within the company to institutionalize knowledge sharing.
Beyond financial incentives, experts may have personal reasons behind their impulses to hoard. Many experts are widely recognized as the “go-to” person in some capacity, and their deep smarts are strongly linked to their identity and their standing in the organization. It is satisfying to have colleagues seek them out to solve problems and offer solutions, and they fear that passing along their hard-won expertise to more junior colleagues would diminish their own stature. Why would they let that go?
As a manager, don’t wait until an individual has a monopoly on certain kinds of know-how — set systems in place to prevent it long before it’s time for an individual to retire. In some organizations, employees cannot be promoted until they can prove that they have mentored a successor. Personal reputation therefore depends not only on how skillfully people do their job, but how good they are at teaching others to do it. At other companies, such as Nucor Steel, compensation is based on how well the team is performing. That dependency breeds the necessity to help each other and for experienced operators to transfer their expertise to other team members. Strategies like these force knowledge sharing and interaction as part of the culture; in fact, hoarding invokes built-in penalties.
Possibly the toughest expert to convince to share knowledge is someone who’s dissatisfied with the company they’re leaving. The retiring aircraft engineer in the example above felt his work had never been valued. The lives of pilots and passengers depended on the skills and dedication of maintenance engineers, yet they were low on the totem pole. “We were invisible. No managers ever even knew what we did,” he declared. This bitter observation may have been based more in perception than reality, but it was no less powerful as a motive to refuse to pass along his own deep smarts.
Take notice of those who may be bearing resentment. Individual managers wield an inordinate amount of influence over whether or not experts feel their work is valued. Acknowledging good work is the first step. As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have demonstrated in their research, small acts such as providing frequent positive feedback, celebrating small wins, and removing obstacles to progress, pay huge, immediate dividends in productivity and creativity.
Such attention also offers long-term benefits. In a number of companies we have worked with to transfer deep smarts, experts spoke of “paying back” and “leaving a legacy.” They were more than willing to share what they had learned over the years. Of course, such willingness derives from personality as well as a supportive organizational environment, but much research (including our own) has shown that people who have been mentored themselves are much more likely to mentor others. In essence, a culture of mentoring becomes self-perpetuating.
The capability to transfer deep smarts from experts to their successors, as one manager we worked with recently observed, is not just “nice to have,” but an “absolute need to have.” Hoarding knowledge is a luxury that no organization can afford.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 12/18/2014.