Fight the Brain Drain

Is there any doubt that 2002 was a bad year to be an employee? With layoffs happening at a frightening pace, many folks dreaded showing up for work in the morning, fearful that there was a pink slip waiting for them. According to Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based employment research firm, about 3.3 million people lost their jobs last year. That is, then, 275,000 job cuts per month.

It's almost as bad to be an organizational survivor. Why? Because it means that you're now responsible for more work. In fact, there's a term gaining wide use to describe the additional responsibility remaining employees take on from those who have left: ghost work.

"Ghost work is very demoralizing, because people are expected to do more -- without a pay raise or the knowledge to handle the additional tasks," says Hamilton Beazley, chairman of Strategic Leadership Group, an Arlington, VA-based consulting firm.

Even more disturbing is this: In the coming years, after the economy inevitably rebounds and layoffs subside, the rate at which people leave their organizations -- and take their knowledge and experience with them -- is going to increase. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 19 percent of baby boomers holding executive, administrative, and managerial positions are expected to retire in just the next five years, and the number of boomers who become eligible for retirement will remain steady -- at 12,480 per day -- from 2010 until the mid-2020s. And believe it or not, the public sector has a more immediate crisis: By 2005, more than half of the 1.8 million federal government employees will be eligible for retirement, including 71 percent of those within the senior executive ranks.

For both corporations and associations, these figures could mean disaster. There will be an exodus of knowledge and experience on a scale never before seen, resulting in a loss of productivity that could easily cripple the ability to compete. There are, however, some forward-thinking organizations that have implemented programs to promote continuous knowledge transfer between co-workers (a process Beazley calls "continuity management") in order to maintain productivity, regardless of the rate of employee turnover. Among the companies with such programs are General Electric, Siemens, Tennessee Valley Authority, and the World Bank.

And for meeting planners -- who, in essence, are specialists in transferring knowledge among people both internally and externally -- this is a perfect opportunity to become indispensible by helping to nurture continuity management programs within their organizations. The hook: Face-to-face meetings are a crucial component to any such initiative.

"In the coming years, continuity management will become a prominent management function, as important as any that we see today," says Beazley. What's more, "This task requires planners to create a new definition of their role," adds Deborah Amidon, founder and CEO of consulting firm Entovation International, in Wilmington, MA, and author of the new book The Innovation Superhighway (Butterworth Heinemann, 2002). "If planners can redefine their role in terms of the huge flow of knowledge that they help catalyze, they are instantly more valuable in the eyes of management."

So, what do you need to know about continuity management in order to promote such a program -- and yourself -- within your organization? Read on to find out.

Getting Started

Before you say to yourself, "A project like this is simply too big for me to handle," define the scope of your task with one simple question: Which department do you plan the most meetings for? Aside from your own meeting planning department (if there is one), this department is probably the area you know most about in your organization. As a result, you can help initiate a continuity management program within that department -- presumably with the blessing and assistance of human resources personnel. This places the project on a scale you can manage.

With your group defined and human resources in your corner, you should begin by taking these two steps:

Identify the valuable knowledge that the department's members possess.

Determine exactly where the knowledge they possess is.

The former is more closely related to a meeting planner's job than the latter, but knowing where people store their information is as important as determining what people know. Boston-based consulting firm Delphi Group estimates that 70 percent of organizational knowledge is in the minds of employees (known as "tacit" knowledge) while just 30 percent is in externalized forms (known as "explicit" knowledge).

Tacit knowledge includes:

People's information networks -- "the people they consult with regarding specific aspects of the business," says Beazley.

Knowledge of the corporate culture, and according to Beazley, "how people get their jobs done within that culture."

Unique experiences they've had and innovations they have made. "No matter how bright an employee is, if he doesn't have past experiences to refer to and build on, he will be at a disadvantage," says Beazley. "Your people need to know the victories and defeats of their predecessors in order to serve them in their future decisions and actions."

Explicit knowledge includes:

Audio- and videotape
Any other recorded form of information

Do not, however, focus so much on gathering the tacit knowledge of the group that you take lightly the task of gathering its explicit knowledge. The reason, says Beazley, is that "although this information is in externalized forms -- files, databases, et cetera -- if you don't know how to access it, it is of no use to you."

A case study from Beazley's new book, Continuity Management (John Wiley and Sons, 2002), dramatically illustrates just how disastrous it can be to allow both tacit and explicit knowledge to walk out the door:

A company delayed a product launch by nine months as it struggled to resolve a technical issue. Because of the delay, the firm lost the "first mover" advantage -- in other words, a rival company introduced a similar item to the market in that time -- so that once the firm launched its own product, it appeared to potential customers that it had simply created a knockoff. As a result, the firm's product never achieved its projected volume and revenue. Worse yet, an internal investigation after the launch found that the technical solution that employees took months to arrive at already existed as part of the company's own intellectual property -- research conducted 15 years earlier had covered the same ground, but knowledge of that research was lost due to defections and retirement.

The eventual cost of not finding that explicit knowledge: $1 billion in research budget overruns and lost revenue. "This happens on smaller scales every day in companies across the country," says Beazley.

Proof in Black and White

For planners, the evidence is clear that several forms of face-to-face meetings are central to preserving both tacit and explicit knowledge in organizations. Last year the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) in Houston, TX, published a study entitled, "Retaining Valuable Knowledge," encompassing 18 organizations that use continuity management programs. For most of them, real-time group interactions scored highest in frequency of use and in effectiveness, even though technology applications such as e-mail and electronic repositories routinely play a central role as well.

As knowledge is captured from all members of the department, the next step is to create opportunities for people to access that information. Giving people access to others' know-how creates a beneficial cycle:

It educates people on just what information is available to them and from whom, making them more efficient;

It causes the creation of new knowledge and innovative ideas, as people assimilate others' knowledge with their own, test what they've learned during subsequent business encounters, and draw conclusions;

This new knowledge, in turn, becomes valuable and ready to be assimilated, and the knowledge management cycle starts anew.

At the D.C.-based World Bank, group interviews and meetings used for knowledge capture take place at a few different points in the cycle: in the midst of projects; before employees are transferred to other departments or assignments; and before retirements. These knowledge-gathering meetings are often videotaped, then transcribed and digitally archived so that there is both text and video contained in the electronic databases -- which any employee can search by topic.

This combination of real-time events with technology helps capture and transfer knowledge and innovation not only within a department, but across departments and even across the managerial ranks. And "managers certainly need to be involved in meetings as well," says Beazley. "The horizontal movement of knowledge among co-workers makes for day-to-day effectiveness, but if you don't have knowledge moving vertically, an organization can't build on what it had with previous employees or learn the lessons of the past. A large part of innovation is based on what you already know. So if you don't know what you know, you're wasting assets and potential, too."

Another example of combining technology and face-to-face interaction is found in communities of practice or interest. These groups are bound by passion for and interest in a topic, not by assignment, resulting in involvement by people from different departments. Interestingly, such communities almost always start up in the electronic medium, as Internet- or intranet-based chat rooms or listservs. But as they become more sophisticated and gain credibility among employees, they usually need to include face-to-face meetings, which then become essential to each community's effectiveness.

In fact, APQC's report stresses that point: "Most people are under the misconception that electronic or online interaction is enough to form relationships among employees. All of APQC's studies in knowledge management show that nothing replaces face-to-face interaction."

Beazley adamantly backs this up. "Technology is merely one medium for knowledge transfer; it is not synonymous with knowledge transfer, and certainly not with knowledge acquisition," he says. "Acquisition is a loose but complex process that depends on messy human-related factors like motivation, commitment, hopes, and rewards. Any attempt at knowledge transfer and acquisition that fails to account for human characteristics cannot succeed."

Again, APQC's research reinforces the validity of these arguments. Real-time group interactions are both frequently used and deemed highly effective in transferring knowledge, despite the fact that technology such as e-mail and searchable electronic repositories containing case studies and other knowledge are readily available to employees as well.

Although a program of continuous know- ledge transfer makes employees' work easier, better, and likely more rewarding, some extrinsic rewards should also be offered by management to ensure fuller participation. Material rewards will enhance the desire of employees not only to share existing knowledge, but also acquire knowledge from others in order to create new knowledge and innovation that helps the organization both immediately and in the future. Salary increases, bonuses, stock options, and employee recognition programs are possibilities, and can be based on performance standards both objective (for instance, sales volume increases or shorter customer response time) or subjective (for instance, an "employee of the month" award for new knowledge that assists the greatest number of co-workers).

The End Result

Granted, implementing a program of this depth is sure to require some tweaking of an organization's culture. But with the demographic changes that are inexorably moving through today's workforce, such an initiative -- even implemented one department at a time -- will make the future more manageable, while spotlighting you as a proactive, forward-looking employee who understands the big picture. "A continuity management program tells employees that management understands the company's greatest asset is their knowledge; that is motivating and empowering," says Beazley. "In this context, planners can think of themselves as being in the vanguard of making organizations realize the critical nature of knowledge, and understand that there can be a workable plan for harvesting and transferring that knowledge between employee generations."

Not only can this help you keep your job today, but it may well get you promoted before too long.