What brain drain?

Baby boomers are retiring and taking their knowledge with them. Why do so few in IT seem to care?

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Capturing knowledge

When the Tennessee Valley Authority realized that 30% to 40% of its workforce would retire over the next five years, it developed a process to determine which employees possessed unique, undocumented knowledge; to assess the risk of losing that knowledge; and to find ways to capture it through retention, documentation, mentoring, training and the sharing of expertise.

DeLong has studied the TVA, which is the nation's largest public utility, with 18 power plants, three of them nuclear. He says that the TVA performed a risk assessment for each position in the organization by ranking employees on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of how soon they would retire and how critical their knowledge and skills were. Depending on the score, each position was prioritized based on the need to assess the endangered skills, develop a knowledge retention plan or even offer benefits that would retain that worker longer.

"One of the most important things is to start a conversation about what would keep key employees long enough to capture their knowledge," DeLong says. A powerful tool in that effort is to offer longtime staffers new challenges and even new roles. "You may lose them from that [current] role," he says, "but you're keeping them available to transfer knowledge about their job."

But where many IT professionals trip up, DeLong contends, is in making knowledge transfer more about technology and less about human-to-human communication. For example, for some, the first approach to knowledge transfer might be to build a database to capture documentation and lessons learned, without thinking through how that information will be used by ensuing generations of employees. It's important to keep the human element in the equation by involving the younger employees in the knowledge capture and teaching older workers how to mentor, DeLong explains. "It's not about giving career advice; it's about, 'Here are three steps to troubleshooting the system,' " he says.

It's also important to identify what's in it for the mentor, DeLong adds. For example, would a phased-retirement benefit or some other perk motivate older workers to make knowledge-sharing a priority?

All in all, no matter how many of a company's IT employees fall into older age brackets, it's clearly important to assess the value of the knowledge and skills that are walking out the door.

"It's not about being nice to old people," DeLong says. "It's about the future workforce capabilities of IT and the legacy knowledge that's critical for that. The problem is, we tend to overlook that."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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