What happens to decades of knowledge when employees retire?

As Baby Boomers move into retirement, field service organizations scramble to transfer knowledge from seasoned pros to the next generation of workers. This is especially important as the hiring pool for field service organizations dwindles—The Manpower Group found that 40% of employers have difficulty filling roles, and skilled trade positions – electricians, carpenters, welders, etc. – are the hardest to fill.

Without a proper strategy to ensure that tribal knowledge is shared with younger generational workers, companies suffer from both a decrease in the number of workers and a decrease in the level of talent and expertise. To avoid this, companies are carrying out initiatives and investing in technology to ensure they successfully transfer knowledge to new hires before veteran workers retire or leave.

How does corporate knowledge loss impact your business?

Knowledge is an important building block of any company’s competitive advantage. But unless knowledge is effectively shared among employees, it can’t be fully utilized.

In the field service industry, seasoned technicians with years of job experience are the gatekeepers of their company’s knowledge. When they turnover or retire, it can severely impact the business if a plan isn’t in place to ensure their know-how is passed on to other employees.

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are four areas in particular where businesses feel the most pain from expert departures:

  • Relationships – experts know who the other experts are, as well as when to use them
  • Reputation – customers may doubt your company’s capabilities if their experience with a newer employee doesn’t compare to their experience with a former, more seasoned employee
  • Re-work – new hires have to spend time learning things the departing employee already knew (regardless of how much new knowledge that new employee brings)
  • Regeneration – innovation is often built on years of experience and expertise with a particular product or service, so losing seasoned employees can impact the development of new ideas

These pain points translate to dollars lost—HBR found that the cost associated with losing subject matter experts could be estimated at up to 20 times higher than typical recruitment and training costs.

5 Practical Ways to Transfer Knowledge Across Generations

Creating a formal offboarding process is crucial to protecting tribal knowledge from literally walking out the door. Without a formalized process, knowledge transfer often takes a backseat to more time-sensitive priorities.

While capturing employee knowledge during offboarding should be part of the process, successful companies begin to transfer knowledge from expert technicians well before they give notice and get ready to depart. The following 5 ideas ensure that knowledge is captured and shared continuously throughout an employee’s career.

1. Leverage technology to connect the dispersed workforce

In many field service organizations, technicians are spread across cities and states, always on the move to the next job. They don’t get much face time with their coworkers and have no way to feel connected to the organization the way that office workers do. Connecting and empowering field service workforces with new technology is crucial on multiple levels. It gives your company an advantage when recruiting new hires who are naturally tech-savvy. It boosts engagement and retention levels, and it provides a mechanism for teams to share on-the-job knowledge and hacks.

Communication and collaboration technology plays a big role in field service today—giving teams a way to get work done and a way to socialize and get to know each other without needing to be face to face. These connections (that should be backed up with intermittent in-person meetings) are crucial in getting employees to feel comfortable with each other so that they are more likely to ask for help and advice on how to do something.

This can also be influenced by a culture of connectivity. When effective communication and collaboration is part of the job every day, employees will feel more of a responsibility to share knowledge. This is especially true when accountability is built into their communication app with read receipts.

2. Start new hires off with in-person job shadowing

Job shadowing is a popular onboarding technique that allows employees to learn the ropes from an experienced coworker. When executed well, job shadowing can set employees up for lasting success.

It’s important to match new technicians with seasoned pros who are willing and excited to share what they’ve learned over the years and provide hands-on learning. Depending on the new hire’s experience, job shadowing could last a few days or few weeks. Even if new technicians have previous experience, there are still new types of equipment to get familiar with, company processes and protocols to learn, managers and teammates to get to know, technology to learn, and so on.

Adding job shadowing to your company’s formal onboarding process is a great way to transfer knowledge from the very get-go. The next step is to make this kind of learning available throughout your technicians’ careers.

3. Create an employee mentoring program for continued learning

Setting up a formal mentoring program is a great way for different generations to learn from each other and ensure knowledge is continuously transferred from subject-matter experts to the next generation of workers.

Managers can match highly knowledgeable field engineers with newcomers and establish a schedule of regular 1:1s or on-the-job training. A successful mentor program hinges on finding experienced employees who want to join. Try to create hype around the program, perhaps frame it as an exciting opportunity for them to be teachers and mentors and get to know the team. It often turns out that relationships become reciprocal, with experienced employees learning just as much as the younger ones, particularly in terms of new technology.

4. Send out quarterly “critical incidents” surveys and share the results

Quarterly or monthly “critical incident” sharing is a great way to keep the information flowing while also being able to document knowledge and store it in the company’s content repository.

The idea behind this is to send out surveys to veteran employees where they describe the most difficult situations they’ve ever encountered on the job, why they were so difficult, and what they did to resolve them. The answers can then be collated together into a document that is shared with all technicians. Additionally, insights from such survey results can be used to create new training curricula.

5. Encourage employees to use troubleshooting groups

When technicians are on the job and run into a new issue, troubleshooting and expert hotline groups are a powerful way to get immediate answers and share pro tips. On the field team’s communication app, there are a variety of ways to set up help groups.

One option is to have a designated help group, such as “Save My Bacon,” where all field technicians are members and know that if a question comes through—say a customer is in jeopardy—it needs to be answered ASAP. And in conjunction, there could be a less urgent group such as “Pro Hacks” where technicians share tips and tricks about how they solve customer problems. For larger companies with thousands of field service workers, creating smaller groups specific to certain regions or products can be much more manageable.

Another option is to create even more targeted troubleshooting groups that are staffed by subject-matter experts where technicians can message in for help. These groups allow technicians to get 1:1 help from the person who has the right knowledge without needing to know who that person is beforehand. These conversations can be exported and collated into a document every quarter to generate improved training materials and increase the amount of captured tribal knowledge.

Build knowledge sharing into the fabric of your business

As your skilled workforce ages and begins to retire, it’s imperative that their knowledge is transferred to the next generation of technicians, as well as is captured by the company and leveraged for improved training and onboarding.

Mobile-first communication technology, on-going programs and a culture that values and encourages peer-to-peer knowledge sharing are key to ensuring knowledge isn’t lost as employees retire or turnover.

Stacey Epstein

Stacey Epstein is CEO of Zinc, an enterprise communication platform for deskless workforces. Prior to Zinc, Stacey was Chief Marketing Officer at ServiceMax, which was acquired by GE for $1b in 2017. Prior to that, Stacey was head of global marketing at SuccessFactors, which was acquired by SAP for $3.4b in 2012.  Stacey holds a B.A. from Emory University where she was a four year all-conference soccer player. She is a mother to two young daughters and is a prolific writer about her perspective concerning leadership, technology, and innovation. @zinc