Canadian Consulting Engineer

Overcoming the Memory Gap

January 1, 2014
By Bryan Leach, P.Eng.

Many engineering companies are failing to recognize — let alone address — the significant loss of corporate memory and source of competitive advantage that their retiring baby boomer managers and staff represent.

These days we hear plenty in the media about the impact of retiring baby boomers and the growing skills shortage. The Mining Industry Resources Council, for example, has said that about 40% of the resource extraction industry’s workforce is at least 50 years old and one third of them are expected to retire by 2022. Similar skills shortages will be experienced in the construction sector when the current infrastructure deficit is addressed.

Many engineering companies are failing to recognize — let alone address — the significant loss of corporate memory and source of competitive advantage that their retiring baby boomer managers and staff represent.

Recently, I had the opportunity to quantify this potential loss of corporate memory due to the impending retirement of baby boomers from the Canadian arm of an international consulting engineering company. The investigation focused on the 39 senior professional engineers and scientists on staff who were 60 years of age or older and could potentially retire within the next five years.

It was assumed that all of these 39 senior staff members started their professional careers at age 25 years, so they collectively represented a professional experience of 1,479 years, of which 1,068 years was with the subject organization. On average, the group of senior professionals was 62.8 years of age and had 35.3 years of professional experience, of which 27.4 years was with the subject organization. What organization could afford to lose over a millennia of organizational memory in five years, and still maintain its competitive advantage in the marketplace?

The hourglass of corporate knowledge

Not all the accumulated skill, knowledge and experience of a company’s retiring senior professionals is of equal value to a firm. The key to managing the transfer of knowledge from this group is to first identify the knowledge assets that constitute the company’s source of competitive advantage in the marketplace, and in whose heads these knowledge assets reside.

Key knowledge assets are those that are somewhat unique in the marketplace, are difficult to replicate and that add value to the clients’ businesses. In many instances the key knowledge assets are in the form of tacit knowledge (know-how) that is difficult to articulate in formal language and involves intangible factors that cannot be placed in manuals and databases. The challenge is to effect the transfer of these key knowledge assets to the next generation.

Knowledge management in engineering organizations was described in the February 2013 edition of the New Civil Engineer as being analogous to an “hour glass with graduates at the bottom, experts at the top and a narrow, damaging bottleneck in the middle.” Companies need to address this bottleneck to enable the flow of their key knowledge assets to the younger generations on which the future success of the organization will depend.

In the company I studied, two of the methods used to effect knowledge transfer are (a) encouraging senior staff to write articles to be posted in a database that can be accessed by all employees through the organization’s intranet; and (b) encouraging senior staff to share their knowledge by acting as facilitators for in-house training programs. However, investigations revealed that in actuality of the 39 potentially retiring senior professionals, only three had contributed a total of nine articles to this database, with one individual contributing six of the articles. Furthermore, very few of these retirees were actively participating in the in-house training programs as facilitators. Clearly in this case, the bottleneck is very narrow.

Removing the bottleneck

The removal of the information bottleneck requires active knowledge management that may take three forms, as follows:

• Implementing cultural change to promote, recognize and reward knowledge sharing. Cultural change involves appealing to intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations to share knowledge.

• Capture and storage programs. These tend to focus on explicit knowledge (know-what). The knowledge can be articulated in formal language, mathematical expressions, specifications and manuals, and it can be stored in a database. Capture and storage projects suffer from the fact that when people in an organization are seeking information or knowledge, they are far more likely to seek out a knowledgeable individual rather than turn to a library or database. Consequently, in capturing and sharing the baby boomers’ key knowledge assets you need to focus on the access and transfer of tacit knowledge at the individual level by implementing or enhancing mentoring, coaching, cognitive apprenticeship programs, and fostering communities of practice.

• Facilitating access to and transfer of knowledge at the personal level. Access and transfer programs require knowing who processes knowledge valuable to the organization (knowledge possessors); ensuring that these knowledge possessors are accessible; encouraging knowledge possessors to share and collaborate with knowledge seekers; and reassuring the knowledge seekers that it is safe to access the knowledge possessors. All these considerations are influenced by the prevailing corporate culture with respect to knowledge sharing. Finally, senior management needs to provide the time, space and support for this generational transfer of the key knowledge assets that constitute the organization’s corporate memory and source of competitive advantage. cce

Bryan Leach, a principal of Imparando Consulting of Calgary, a company that helps organizations learn. Trained in geology and geological engineering, he has a certificate in adult and workplace learning and a Master’s degree in continuing education.


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