It’s corporate memory loss

Forgetting things is normal and is often a factor of the ageing process. In my case, and I am sure many others, too, it is sometimes a question of choice to conveniently forget something.

Of course, if we know we are liable to forget things, we should write them down. And when it comes to matters of great importance, knowledge, wisdom why things are done the way they are, we need to make sure that they are passed on.

Grandparents have a very useful function, too, and that is in filling knowledge gaps where the parents can’t or don’t go.

My wife recently read a true story where the author, knowing that she was going to die soon, wanted to make sure that her husband had, in essence, an instruction book on how to take care of all the things that needed to be taken care of in her absence. She had the foresight and caring attitude to do this – before it was too late.

She didn’t have a choice. She had not planned to leave but had chosen to make the most of her opportunity.

For the corporate world, things are different. They get plenty of notice when workers retire – and walk out the door, taking the vital knowledge that is so often central to the success of a business.

The IT world is going to feel big-time pain when the people who know how to do real programming (not just develop client server applications) retire.

Who is going to fix things when they go wrong?

Where are the new developments based on long-term knowledge going to come from?

In the example above, the dying wife wrote things down but, as one IT professional remarked after a three-month handover period on complex infrastructure building and maintenance, there is only so much you can absorb in a short time. And who has the time to read it all anyway?

A few years ago, in a report for the MetLife Mature Market Institute entitled Searching for the Silver Bullet: Leading Edge Solutions for Leveraging an Ageing Workforce, David DeLong observed: “One of the most anticipated workplace trends of the 21st century is the huge retirement wave that will hit most industrialised countries, including the US, in the next few years. But surveys consistently report that most companies are unprepared to respond to the seismic shifts that are expected to appear in the workforce.”

More recently, Monster conducted an online survey of 550 HR managers with high-level knowledge of their firms’ strategies.

Among various findings, they concluded that, while most companies (more than 70%) recognise the value of knowledge, the vast majority of firms (77%) have no formal method to identify critical organisational knowledge. Furthermore, only 14% of responding firms indicated that actively managing knowledge retention due to retirement is an urgent matter.

According to those surveyed, it would seem that the loss of knowledge through transference to other companies is a greater threat. What is disturbing is the number of people I talk to on a regular basis that either remark on or agree that the loss of knowledge and experience through retirement is a hugely disturbing matter.

In the energy sector, we don’t have to look far or think too hard to come up with an example of an accident or even disaster where lack of experience has been cited as at least part of the problem.

Following an explosion of an ethylene reactor, the investigation revealed that due to retirements and turnover (aka lay-offs?) none of the operators in the control room had more than year’s experience.

Fortunately, there are companies that have adopted or are in the process of adopting processes and strategies to deal with the wave of baby-boomer retirements that is rapidly picking up pace, but amazingly few.

On a positive note, on February 19, the Press and Journal reported that industry group Oil and Gas UK is to pass on to nearly 200 trainees the important lessons learned from the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea.

Most of the trainees were not even born when the platform blew up 20 years ago; which surely only goes to further reinforce the necessity to engage meaningful efforts to retain the corporate knowledge that is largely the domain of those who are preparing to leave.

A lot of companies seem to think that many workers will simply extend their work life in the positions they are in now, but research suggests that this is a long way from the reality and that the vast majority will take retirement when they are eligible – and why wouldn’t they?

Fortunately, a significant proportion will return to work, but attention must be paid to how they are re-engaged.

I will leave my main observations on this subject for a future column. Unsurprisingly, we have some interesting suggestions and, indeed, a business – Expert Alumni – built around the whole matter.

I’ve just been at the Energy Institute’s IP Week Conference. It was, as always, rich in content. The new section on skills, however, seemed to draw a significant amount of feedback and, I am glad to say, a much more senior (ranking) attendance than is often seen at such events.

Perhaps the tide of thinking is turning and bosses are beginning to realise that skills shortages will worsen dramatically as the pace of retirements increases.

An interesting parallel: Nasa has hinted that manned moon landings are off the agenda since the organisation has forgotten how to do it. Most of the engineers and scientists are in Florida playing golf.

In my view, there is indeed a duty of care in protecting the corporate memory that has taken so long to learn.

Let’s hope that we are not going to watch it unravel in front of us with potentially disastrous effects and that we can prevent, rather than attempt to cure, what really amounts to a serious case of corporate Alzheimer’s.

John Glesinger is CEO of Expert Alumni