The Knowledge Retention Dilemma: A Few Key Suggestions

An issue that many companies are dealing with today, as a result of both lay-offs and the retirement of “boomers” is knowledge retention. Too often we let people walk out the door without having fully captured what they know, who they know, and how they did things. And as the economy improves that knowledge loss is going to accelerate as unappreciated workers leave and move to companies where they can make more and feel better. (The unappreciated part is a post for another day.)

A recent article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, entitled Cos. Can Capture know-how of retiring workers offered a few suggestions on how companies can do some knowledge transfer. These included:

  • Mentoring programs
  • Cross-generational teams
  • Convincing retiring workers to stay longer to teach someone
  • Putting retiring workers on a contract to be on call 

To me these suggestions are incomplete and don’t really address how you actually go about capturing information. One possible method comes from the book The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. His book is about becoming an entrepreneur and he suggests that as you set up your company you take the approach that you are setting up a franchise. In order to set up a franchise you have to thoroughly document every process so that someone could step in and take over by reading the documentation on each job. This works well for departments and positions too. However, in my experience too few positions have this documentation. It would be great if every one did and it would be good to have every employee develop this kind of documentation. But that may be a pipe dream. At the very least you certainly need to have every retiring employee create that kind of documentation. If they are training someone to take their place they and the trainee together could develop this documentation.


A second method comes from consulting practices. I have read of consulting companies that require consultants to document the assignments they have completed, including problems encountered and solutions developed. This information goes into a central database that is accessible by future consultants. This allows them to see if anyone else has encountered a problem in the past and may prevent them from having to “re-invent the wheel.” Thus knowledge is retained far beyond the tenure of the consultant.


A third method comes from one of my favorite business gurus, Harvey Mackay. He realized a long time ago that for his business to be successful he could not afford to re-invent relationships with customers every time a sales rep left his job. He realized that knowing your customer beyond numbers of the business is critical to the success of the company. The soft relationship stuff is important. To this end he developed what he calls his Mackay 66. It is a questionnaire of 66 questions that gets to the wants, likes, dislikes, points-of-view, education, family, interests and aspirations of the customer. He also has versions for competitors and employees. Each successive employee coming into a position has access to these files so that “new” relationships can be forged more quickly than the might normally.


So think about your knowledge retention processes and see if some of these tools might help you and your company do a better job in retaining the hard earned knowledge that the company has paid for. At a minimum you as a professional HR person should use these tools yourself.


You can find information on the Mackay 66 by visiting here. While you are at it, you may want to sign up for his newsletter. It is an easy read chocked full of great insights.


You can find Michael Gerber’s book by clicking on the title The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.


1 thought on “The Knowledge Retention Dilemma: A Few Key Suggestions”

  1. Great post Michael! The "brain drain" is a real and present danger to the performance of many organizations. Unfortunately many have overlooked it as of late due to the poor economy causing employees to hide out or put off retirement.

    I have included your post in my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: to share you suggestions for approaching this knowledge retention dilemma.

    Be well!

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