Restoring Lost Knowledge: From a Brain Drain to a Surplus of Smarts


Of the many doomsday scenarios that scientists and demographers like to consider, here is one situation—phrased in the form of a question—that should give every CEO pause: What happens when the organizational knowledge you think you possess suddenly vanishes because of an unexpected departure or a tragic death?

Call it a "brain drain," an "operational hiccup," or whatever term suits your fancy, but the economic implications for entire industries—and the nation as a whole—remains the same, and can range from ruinous to catastrophic.

To business owners, I ask again: What is your plan—do you even have one—when, not if, your most valuable employees make an unexpected path to the EXIT sign?

For, unless companies have a team of experts who can customize solutions for these problems, businesses can cease critical operations and quickly collapse.

Indeed, the notion of "too big to fail" organizations is a misnomer; because knowledge recovery is not a software program executives can run by pressing "Enter," or a paper trail corporate detectives can follow, resulting in the retrieval of critical operational files, presentations, spreadsheets and slides. Sorry, but the sum total of knowledge is not simply accessible via a few keystrokes.

Rather, businesses must proactively implement strategic knowledge capture and management plans, which can identify and retain the key knowledge required to maintain a company's operations.

According to this survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a third of employers expect staffing problems this year.

"When you have large numbers that are leaving and a pipeline that is not entirely as wide as the exit pipeline, you will have temporary gaps," says Mark Schmit, executive director of the SHRM Foundation.

Research from the Center for American Progress and Inc. reveals that it costs anywhere from 20% to 150% of yearly salary to replace an employee.

To that end, here is a Knowledge Management Risk Evaluation Test from Novus Origo.

The following questions demand detailed answers.

1.      If a key employee suddenly left your company, would you be OK?

2.      Do you have approved succession plans in place to maintain critical operations?

3.      Are your current processes formally documented and easily accessible to your employees?

4.      Do you have organizational training programs designed to support critical operations?

5.      Have you evaluated your operational processes every 12-18 months to ensure proper efficiency?

6.      Are your operational processes automated to reduce expenses?

Having had the chance to speak with Paul Cevolani, the President of Novus Origo, whose policy positions I read on a regular basis, I now have a much better perspective about the magnitude of this crisis.

Cevolani says:

"Companies must pay greater attention to the risks associated with a loss of employees, or the flight of knowledge these individuals claim as their own. Without the time and preparation to respond to these matters, the consequences can be severe. As the knowledge gap widens, and as Baby Boomers retire in greater numbers, businesses will face a chasm they can narrow—or a void that will consume them."

"Even if you could quickly fill a vacated position with a new hire, there is still the process of training the new employee on the correct way to do the job. If you don't have the work processes properly documented, the training process could be very slow. To avoid the latter, it is crucial to have a plan on behalf of the former."

Wise counsel, to be sure; because, in the midst of a stagnant economy and collective anxiety by employers and employees alike, knowledge is too precious for us to squander.