Recruitment 411: Ambition vs. Institutional Knowledge

This morning during my daily canvas of various news sites and online articles, I came across a blog titled The Perfect Talent Storm. The writer talks about a talent shortage on the horizon for the U.S. workforce. He pinpoints three primary causes of this looming problem: shifting workforce demographics, a less educated society and the changing nature of our work.

While all of these are valid points to ponder, I’d like to focus for a moment on shifting workforce demographics – a topic that’s been on our radar for a while in the IRS Recruitment Office.

It doesn’t concern us that different generations have different skill sets. After all, anyone can be taught how to use an operating system or create an Excel spreadsheet. However, institutional knowledge cannot be taught – it must be gained through experience.

In the past, the average career path was like a straight ladder; start at the bottom and work your way up, one rung at a time, until you reach the top. Today’s career path is more like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Employees are more frequently finding themselves climbing one ladder, going down a slide and sometimes skipping two ladders – sometimes by choice, and sometimes by necessity.

Even in government, it’s getting harder and harder to find lifelong employees. We all know someone who worked their way up from the mailroom to the boardroom, but sometimes it seems like employees lately are barely in a position long enough for the ink on their résumé to dry.

Perhaps it’s me, but it appears many workers today focus more on advancing their careers than on gaining institutional knowledge.

Are we forever losing institutional knowledge along with the retiring baby boomers?

Recruitment 411 is the official blog of the IRS Recruitment Office.

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Sterling Whitehead

Yes, some institutional knowledge is disappearing with the retiring of the boomers — that knowledge loss is why knowledge management, whether its speakers, mentors, blogs or another form are so important.

Still, this loss of instutional knowledge is an opportunity to question old assumptions and rewrite the rules. In some ways, a loss of institutional knowledge (and its assumptions) is helpful in Gov 2.0 efforts to recreate governments and reconnect with citizens.

Alicia Mazzara

Loss of institutional knowledge is definitely a concern since people don’t anticipate staying put in their jobs for very long anymore. I don’t think this is going to change anytime soon, so what we need to think about is how to best capture and pass along information when people leave. I agree that sometimes this can be an opportunity to break out of old patterns, but it can also slow people down if no one knows how to do something. Agencies need to think about ways to document important information long before people plan on job-hopping or retiring. Too often, people have one foot out the door, and the last thing they want to think about is writing up instructions for their successor.

Daniel Daughtry-Weiss

Perhaps it’s me, but it appears many workers today focus more on advancing their careers than on gaining institutional knowledge.

I agree with this. We are not talking about a shift from 20+ years of institutional knowledge to 10 years or even 5 years. It is more like 2 years! My peers (workers my age and younger–I’m 36) do seem to be more focused on advancing their careers than staying in one place long enough to make an institutional difference. With six years at my firm I’m the guy who has been around “forever.” You have alot of change initiatives, but the benefit is when people stay around long enough to really make the new system or whatever really work. That doesn’t happen when the average stint is 2 years.