Passing the Torch – Transferring Institutional Knowledge


In my office, over 40% of the workforce will be eligible to retire within 5 years.  Naturally, there is concern about the loss of institutional knowledge.  Already there are instances where we begin to repeat actions that were tried (unsuccessfully) in the past, and where “how it’s always been done” refers to just the past ten years, since that’s how long some teams’ collective memories span.  The challenge facing us is how to transfer institutional knowledge before we lose our senior staff.  Many of my friends from when I started almost 25 years ago have gone.  Some left after a year or more of “lead time” during which we could prepare.  Others have left suddenly without time to prepare or transfer projects and knowledge.  And then there were others that we knew were going to leave, and could have done more to transfer knowledge, but funding, staffing, workload, or other circumstances prevented pre-planning, and we were still caught off guard, even though preparation could have been done.

When a key staff member retires, the office is already disrupted due to the personal loss.  Are there techniques to prevent workload from also being disrupted?  Unlike baby boomers (1946-1964), some studies indicate that the Gen Xers (1965-1980) and Millenials (1981 – 2000) are not as prone to remain in one job for decades, and therefore may not be picking up institutional knowledge as a result of longevity.  Organizations must develop strategies to ensure business continuity.  This article  estimates that the government loses 46 days of experience every second as government employees retire or otherwise leave service.

Brain Drain

brain drainIt’s not just retirements, but other losses as well as salaries are frozen and budget cutbacks limit funding and advancement.  A 2013 Washington Post article summarized data from the Office of Personnel Management that shows that more than 82,000 federal workers filed retirement claims between January and August 2013, representing an increase of 30 percent from the same period in 2014.

Picking Brains

So how do we transfer knowledge from key staff before everyone leaves?  Here are a few ideas:

1. Overlap jobs.  We’ve only recently been allowed to do this, but it makes so much sense!  Hire the replacement months before the retiree-to-be leaves.  That way the new person can learn right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.  We had to overcome hurdles “proving” that it was in the government’s best interest to double-fill a position for a few months, but it’s possible.

2. Establish written procedures.  This doesn’t work for every job, but many are process-driven, but the actual processes are not well documented.  We began an effort to document common procedures under a Quality Management System (QMS) with the idea that a new employee could pick up a document and follow the directions and know what to do.  The QMS processes contained templates, links to guidance and regulations, and (the idea was) would be update.  However, our office has currently abandoned these efforts after about three years of getting them started.

3. Develop “continuity books”.  These are similar to QMS procedures, but are more individually based.  Somewhat like a substitute teacher’s standard lesson plans, the continuity book lists what an individual is responsible for, such as what teams they are on, how often those teams meet, who the contact for the knowledge_0team is, what top duties the individual does, etc.  These books could be helpful if an employee is in an accident or suddenly quits.  As with the QMS procedures, our office started developing continuity books, then stopped.

4. Mentoring and cross-training.  The idea behind these two techniques is that no one person is solely responsible for anything.  So for each project, there is a primary contact and a secondary contact, and both can attend meetings (if both are available), both are copied on emails, and if one contact is gone, the other contact carries on.  There is obvious redundancy in this, but better to have two people that know what’s going on than just one (and then the one person leaves).

5. Re-hired annuitants.  This is commonly used in our office; someone retires, we find out that they have knowledge that no one else has, then we hire them back as a rehired annuitant (with no benefits) so they can train their replacement.  There are limits to this, but it seems to work.

6.  In-house training.  One options could be to have the retiree-to-be offer in-house training on various topics for which they are experts prior to their retirement.  Then younger employees can ask questions and get the basics before the key person retires.

What other ideas does your office use?  Please share your ideas in the comments.

Becky Latka is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

I always like to joke that there are 5 words that will rain down work on you like never before: “I’m going out of town”. I suspect that 4 other words often produce the same result: “I’m going to retire”.

A lot of the people we want to transfer knowledge *from* tend to be in senior positions of authority. And one of the consequences is that their plate often becomes very full during that last lap; partly because it is the last lap, and partly because that’s what their job is normally like. Despite the good intentions to engage in knowledge transfer, it has a way of falling to the bottom of the stack. The challenge becomes one of finding ways to ensure that knowledge *does* get transferred.

My own sense is that, in the few years prior to retiring, some reasonable percentage of time be formally allocated to knowledge transfer as part of a performance agreement. If you leave it for people to “get around to”, the workload will make sure they never do. So it has to be a formal part OF the workload; an expected part of doing one’s job, rather than a nice afterthought on top of the job.

I will also put in a vote for using exit interviews more creatively. We too often focus on exit interviews (or their paper equivalents) as if they are clinical post-mortems – why did you leave? – when they could be used as a dispassionate analysis and database of what could be done differently, what gets done well and should be preserved at all costs, where are the systemic obstacles to achieving corporate goals, where are possible under-utilized efficiencies, and so on. That, too, is a form of valuable knowledge transfer.

The re-hiring of annuitants is a tricky line to walk. On the one hand, the reasons Becky offers are eminently sensible. On the other hand, such rehires often cost more, depend on the retiree being available (rather than moving somewhere or travelling, now that they are retired), and perhaps just as risky – give those who might just stay on staff a little longer a reason to retire sooner rather than later. Indeed, one of the emerging social trends is that knowledge workers tend to retire from their *primary* employment earlier, but do not withdraw from the labor force. When Egyptians ousted former Pres. Mubarak, I joked with my co-workers “Wait, he’s coming back…as a consultant, because that’s where the *real* money is!”. Not terribly far from the truth.

So certainly make use of retirees, but give them better reasons not to retire just yet, too.

Becky Latka

Excellent points, Mark! I live the idea of building knowledge transfer into the job objectives, since this is something that falls through the cracks. I would add that ideally knowledge transfer should be a priority task, not an afterthought, which is especially difficult when offices are already short-staffed.