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How Can Your Company Stop the Brain Drain? Just Ask.


Each year, thousands of experienced employees retire and take a wealth of valuable knowledge and insights with them. It’s been called “brain drain” and the cycle negatively affects processes, creates problems for younger workers, and has proven to be costly for companies both in terms of lost productivity and organizational morale. So why does it continue to happen and what can be done to reverse the trend? Let’s take a closer look and begin by examining some troubling figures.

Pain of the drain

The numbers tell a grim tale. Boomers, who make up 31% of the workforce, are retiring at the pace of four million a year, and 56% of them are in leadership roles when they walk out the door. This becomes a real problem when companies don’t have a succession plan in place. It means there is no system for capturing and transferring all of the critical knowledge that comes from years of experience, leaving those who take the helm in the wake of these personnel departures behind the curve and less equipped to effectively lead.

A recent study places the cost of brain drain at $47 million. On average, that’s what large businesses lose in productivity each year due to a lack of knowledge-sharing. When workers spend time seeking information from colleagues or even regenerating organizational knowledge that already exists, it adds up to 5.3 wasted hours a week, and that translates into a number of other problems, including missed deadlines and lost opportunities.

Looking beyond business efficiency, ignoring the brain drain also makes it more difficult to attract and retain the best talent. Brain drain happens when leaders leave a company without sharing their experiences (i.e., where potential problems may arise, how to anticipate and troubleshoot issues, and specific steps for addressing them). So why are so many companies letting this knowledge get away, and what’s standing in the way of them taking action?

For many organizations, it comes down to three things: culture, technology, and/or cost. Organizations either don’t understand the value of knowledge sharing, do not have the tools to manage it, or believe investing in this practice is just too expensive.

Not all doom and gloom

If any of this sounds familiar or terribly discouraging, take heart before you decide to throw in the towel. There’s actually reason for optimism. The good news is, all you have to do is ask. In fact, a vast majority of baby boomers (81%) surveyed by Express Employment Professionals were open to mentoring younger employees. Moreover, those potential mentees are also widely in favor of this, according to a recent AARP survey, which revealed that 79% of workers age 18 to 29 would appreciate learning new skills from more senior colleagues.

It’s all about content management

Now that you’re armed with the evidence that older and younger workers are willing and eager to work with one another to facilitate knowledge-sharing, and that this practice can boost morale and benefit your bottom line, let’s explore how to get it done.

One fairly easy organizational step is to make a regular practice of pairing more tenured employees with their younger coworkers. Harvard Business Review found that allowing cross-generational colleagues to work together helps both groups perform better. They tend to be effective teammates because they’re less competitive with each other than they might be with workers in their own age group.

Doing this helps create a culture that organically nurtures knowledge-sharing, thereby paving the way for a more formalized process of documenting and archiving this important information. Learn more about this practice here.

Establishing a knowledge transfer program at your company all comes down to content management. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when you do this.

First, impress upon those generating content the importance of keeping this information brief and concise. It’s also a good idea to appoint people within your organization who are specifically charged with being stewards of this content to help ensure it is well organized and searchable.

If some employees are reluctant to participate in the creation of content, suggest collaboration to co-author information that may otherwise never be documented. Above all, widely encourage the practice of knowledge transfer across your organization and reward those who champion the cause.

By implementing these practices, you’ll preserve what your people need to keep things moving forward, save money, and improve your organizational culture. Even better, you’ll begin to eliminate costly and preventable brain drain.

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