Recently, I was chatting to a close friend who works in IT for a major US retailer. He shared how one of their teams had come up with a great-sounding idea, then spent the past few weeks preparing to make it happen. Then someone had mentioned the new project to a colleague. "Oh yeah," that team member responded. "We tried that 5 years ago. It didn't work."
In one sentence, the project was crushed and weeks of work lost.
It might be worth mentioning at this point that the colleague had been with the company almost twenty years, while everyone on the idea-team had been there three years or less.
What is knowledge drain?
Knowledge drain is the loss of institutional experience and know-how that occurs when employees leave a company. The story above is a perfect example of this.
Just think: if you left your role tomorrow, what would fall apart? What processes, workflows and tasks are you the key, or only manager of?
Every employee builds up a highly valuable understanding of processes, approaches and the history of the organization as they work. They may also build unique skills related to operating specific equipment or software.
Why is knowledge drain important?
Institutional, role-based or tribal knowledge is a hidden goldmine for businesses. Employees who are well-equipped with such experience can work far more quickly and effectively than a fresh hire.
However, this knowledge is usually only gained from experience over time, and thus is lost when the employee leaves. It may be many years before a replacement hire reaches the same level of expertise in their role.
And all employees eventually leave. The average time employees spend in a job is now just 3.4 years. As a result, knowledge drain costs organizations millions every year - anywhere up to $265 million dollars.
How to fight knowledge drain
With institutional knowledge so valuable to a business, and so detrimental when it drains away, it’s critical to find ways to maintain it even when employees turnover.
#1 Workplace Culture
Fighting knowledge drain must always begin at a cultural level. If an organization's culture is fundamentally opposed to sharing and retaining knowledge, it will be impossible to successfully implement any programs or tools designed to prevent knowledge drain.
Take this scenario for example: a new manager is excited to start her role as Head of Sales. But she quickly finds that no one seems to want to help her learn the processes or software the team uses. All her team members work largely alone, and no one asks or answers questions. At the top of a room is a big whiteboard recording everyone’s sales to date, and whoever ends up in the top three will score a large bonus at the end of the year. One month in, she’s feeling confused, anxious and isolated.
Does that scenario raise any red flags for you?
It should - that manager was stuck in a company culture that favored competition over collaboration. With the knowledge of her predecessor gone, and no one willing to share for fear of losing their advantage, her ability to get up to speed and support the team was next-to-none.
Highly competitive work environments implicitly encourage information hoarding as it leads to workers who cling to anything that could give them an advantage. Tactics like individual rewards, leaderboards and aggressive targets all encourage competition.
Workplaces that take a collaborative approach use tactics such as prioritizing team performance over individual performance, and investing in social relationships.
Workplaces that choose collaboration over competition are better at fighting knowledge drain because they don’t penalize information sharing. Instead, workers are rewarded (implicitly or explicitly) for sharing their knowledge with their coworkers as the entire team improves and delivers better results.
Other workplace cultures that exacerbate knowledge drain include cultures that shun transparency, whether from lack of trust, or a sense of superiority or pride.
#2 Mentoring programs
Mentoring has long been recognised as an effective method for passing wisdom from more experienced individuals to less experienced individuals. This can help to capture less formal forms of institutional knowledge and experience that may not be recorded in documentation.
But managed poorly, mentoring can become a sour experience.
Establishing a mentoring relationship often relies on the courage of a younger worker to approach the person they admire to initiate a mentorship. Even then, the potential mentor may say no if the expectations are unclear, or clearly too onerous. Younger workers may also favor charismatic or energetic mentors, and accidentally miss quieter candidates who are equally or more valuable.
To overcome these barriers, your organization can develop an official mentoring program and encourage team members to join as a mentor or mentee. Make sure to outline clear expectations such as:
- How often mentoring pairs should meet at a minimum.
- How often mentee should contact mentors between meets.
- What topics are appropriate to discuss.
You may also like to direct participants to spend their first meeting outlining their personal expectations for the relationship. Often, people assume that mentoring involves highly regular, lengthy meet-ups. However, this is both unnecessary and likely to put off many who would otherwise like to be involved.
Mentoring can take any form that works for the pair. This goes for frequency and format. A pair might choose monthly catch ups, quarterly video calls, or even simply the ability to send ad hoc emails asking for advice when needed.
Another common misconception of mentoring is that it involves the mentee asking a question and then listening quietly to the mentor's answer. However studies have shown that attempting this actually leads to frustration on both sides of the relationship who both report feeling ignored.
Instead, mentoring relationships are far more successful and satisfying when mentors are able to spend more time listening to their mentee before asking leading questions, allowing the mentee to reach their own conclusions. This teaches the mentees invaluable soft skills including different ways of thinking and approaching problems.
#3 Software solutions
With the right culture and structures in place, your organization can confidently invest in software solutions to upskill your team and further boost knowledge retention in your organization.
While some less formal forms of knowledge are only likely to be passed on through collaborative efforts and mentoring relationships, other kinds of knowledge can be quickly and easily captured and shared with the right software solution.
While many businesses keep formal documentation, these documents can be dry and difficult to parse.
As a result, software solutions have begun to emerge that allow team members to create short, shareable courses that are enjoyable to complete.
One example is HowToo - an intuitive platform built on principles of learning science, allowing anyone to produce high-quality and engaging learning experiences.
Using HowToo, many organizations have seen proven success in allowing team members to create short, easily shareable courses around concise ideas, procedures or topics. By putting the creation power in your team’s hands, you can show that their experience and ideas are valuable, while also creating a lasting knowledge library that will survive long after your people have moved on.
Explore case studies of companies finding success with HowToo ->
Start capturing critical knowledge today
By implementing methods to prevent knowledge drain in your organization, your organization could save millions in lost dollars. With a collaborative culture, mentoring relationships and the right software, you can get new team members up to full productivity faster, and avoid losing critical experience and information.