How to Prepare for the Silver Tsunami


This article focuses on the knowledge and experience that is walking out the door as our seasoned employees retire and how to make the turnover of employees as painless as possible using Knowledge Management (KM).

If your agency is like most government agencies, you will find there is a high percentage of employees that are eligible or will soon be eligible to retire. That is a problem because a lot of the tacit knowledge (what they have in their heads) will walk out the door with them. The challenge is to turn the tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (knowledge that is stored and retrievable) and preserve it for the next generation of experts. KM can help you and your organization prepare for the Silver Tsunami.

Frequently we take the tacit knowledge and experience of our workforce for granted. Google and other search engines have made us complacent about the transfer of knowledge. Don’t know how to replace the roller bearing in your dryer? Google it. It is true you can find information on almost anything on the internet, but not everything. There are key relationships and processes that are not written down or stored in the cloud. The proper application of KM can help smooth the transition of new employees and avoid the need to re-invent a process every few years.

One of the best ways I have found to transfer tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is the deliberate and mandatory use of continuity books. Each continuity book will be different. I have found it is best to start with a welcome letter and table of contents. The subject matter experts (SME) need to ask themselves, what would I need to know to do my job if I were new to the organization?

Usually, a duty descriptions and organization chart are useful to figure out what the job entails and where the position falls in the organization. A schedule of reoccurring events/meetings can help the new person set up their calendar. I always include organization-specific acronyms because I find that the same acronyms frequently mean different things to different people. Points of contact vertically and horizontally across the organization are one of those things that are impossible to Google. These are the people that enable the person to accomplish their job and usually the point of contacts (POCs) that can provide expertise advice if additional help is required. Every continuity book needs to contain current points of contact.

There are many other things that can go into continuity books such as mandatory training, inventories, budgets, how to staff documents or request leave, teleconference numbers and security codes. The list is almost endless. Keeping in mind you need to make these books easy and simple to follow or they will not be used or kept up to date. My continuity book is a three-ring binder that sits on my desk. My subject matter experts store their continuity books in the cloud. I make it a point to review their continuity books annually and update my continuity book on a regular and reoccurring basis.

In conclusion, KM is a disciplined approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving and sharing an enterprise’s information assets. KM is crucial to your agency surviving the Silver Tsunami. Continuity books help capture the policies, procedures and experience of individual employees. Continuity books are not the only way to prepare for the coming exodus of our most experienced and seasoned employees, but it is a good start that may make the difference between weathering the Tsunami or drowning.


Stewart Fearon 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

So, I just retired 4 days ago. There was talk of knowledge transfer, but it never amounted to anything more than mere talk. I even wrote a 12-page history of the activites of our directorate, that I sincerely doubt any managers ever read. ALL effort is focussed on current deliverables, and in keeping with that, my own management asked me to produce something they felt they would need, that they knew only I could produce, and I needed to provide it before I was out the door. And as much as KM sounds valuable and valued, it drifts to the bottom of the stack, and not much gets done about it.

I think it is also fair to say that documents just won’t cut it. There is always a paper trail of what decisions were made and when, but there is rarely any sort of a trail of HOW such decisions were made, what priorities had to be balanced, and how people made the choices among those priorities that they did. The most critical tacit knowledge to be transferred is that of how to reason through challenges and problems, and that tends to be exclusively oral and never written down anywhere, not even in e-mails.

It’s not just the bigwigs, either. I am of the view that a great many bad management decisions arise out of decision-makers dealing with the “big picture” level, but having insufficient awareness of the operational details. That challenge of upward feedback not finding its way to decisions is common to pretty much any organization. So it’s not just the retiring decision-makers one needs to be concerned with from a KM standpoint. It’s also the folks on the frontlines whose experience is necessarily to provide realistic and sustainable actions by those at higher levels after the shop-floor folks have left.

The challenge then becomes one of just how to assure the transfer of that tacit knowledge, in the face of all the quite-normal obstacles to it. The big hurdles are that a) it takes time and likely needs to be oral, b) there is always something pressing that has to get done, and c) we tend to overlook or misjudge what the more valuable sources of such knowledge are. A smaller, but still important hurdle is that not everyone is a good communicator, and not everyone who needs to have knowledge transferred to them is necessarily available to receive it, because they, like so many other folks, are busy with their own deliverables.

I think that one sensible course of action is to make knowledge transfer be a compulsory component of their performance agreement during their last 2 years. It could be some percentage of their time, like 3% or even 8%, perhaps increasing as their retirement date approaches. But the key thing is that it has to be viewed as not simply a nice-to-have, but every bit as obligatory as their other deliverables. In other words, KM has to *become* a deliverable, in order to have time formally set aside, and not fall to the bottom of the stack in the face of other formal obligations. Making it a documentable deliverable on the part not only of the departing employee, but on the part of the manager accountable for that KM, is crucial. After all, the employee can only do what management allots time and effort to allowing to get done. It can’t be optional for anyone. After all, that’s what got us in this predicament in the first place.

How should it happen? Let’s start simple. A informal Friday afternoon brown-bag lunch presentation on “the hardest decisions I had to make in this organization”. Doesn’t have to be embarassing or incriminating (although sometimes decisions that blew up in your face can teach others an awful lot and avoid similar future errors), but it should illustrate how priorities are balanced off in that organizational context. It can even illustrate how priorities needed to be altered as the context and landscape changed. Such sessions should be given and attended by not only management, but by front-line staff. The intent here is not only to convey tacit knowledge, but to tacitly convey that front-line staff have important contributions to make, and that upward feedback is valuable.

Wherever feasible, make such sessions available as broadly as possible, as silo-busting exercises. Heck, record them, catalog them, and use them *again* for new staff or simply future learning exercises. A few years ago, I read the career autobiography of the person who had led our organization some 15 years earlier, when I joined, and it was eye-opening.

Grosso modo, the intent is to connect all corners of the organization, so that they are all capable of rowing the boat in synchrony and in the same direction:as smart a “hive-mind” as one can achieve.