Baby Boomers & Business: The Importance of Knowledge Transfer

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As the workforce ages, a whole generation of postwar American gumption and know-how threatens to fade into the mists of history. But a younger, higher-tech wave of workers stands ready to learn and improve upon the lessons the baby boomers have to teach.

We talked to some top professionals about how to capture and transfer boomers’ critical skills to the next generation. Some of their answers were surprising.

Recognizing a wealth of wisdom

headshot of Steve TrautmanSteve Trautman’s work with top companies like Boeing, Nike, and Goodyear have distinguished him as corporate America’s leading expert on knowledge transfer. His two books,Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader’s Guide to Knowledge Transfer through Peer Mentoring and The Executive Guide to High Impact Talent Management are required reading for CEOs. Trautman believes it is critical to preserve the knowledge and skill sets boomers have but a younger generation of workers are still learning.

We call this knowledge their ‘secret sauce.’ It includes not only the basics like the steps one would take to complete a task, but also how they think about and solve problems they’ve never seen before, build and maintain relationships with critical contacts, represent their organization to others, and design new solutions with an eye toward history.

This knowledge and experience may seem ephemeral but it is not.  It shows up in how they lead or attend meetings, write documents, solve problems and bring ideas to the table. The value is in the practical application of their experiences.

Headshot of Brian WilkersonBrian Wilkerson is the Managing Director of Revolution Advisors, a strategy consulting firm that focuses on improving employee performance. His blog, the Workforce Expert, covers hot topics in workforce planning. Through innovative strategies and cutting-edge planning techniques he helps organizations build for the future, especially when their boomers depart.

Many of the baby boomers bring complex problem-solving experience that is critical to preserve. They have often seen the same issue or challenge in multiple contexts and variations and have an understanding of not just what works, but when it works and in what kinds of situations. They can provide valuable insight into what has been done before and how it can be done better. In addition, they often bring the perspective of how various disciplines can interact effectively to get a better result.

Experts universally agree that boomers possess key knowledge that needs unlocking and transfer to their successors. But what are some successful methods for effecting the transfer?

Wisdom mining techniques

Headshot of LaurenLauren Herring is the CEO of IMPACT Group, a talent development company with presence in more than 30 international locations. She outlines some key questions to ask to ensure getting the most out of an older generation of worker knowledge.

Does the company have the bandwidth to collect the information?  Does leadership see the relevancy of getting this information?

Steve Trautman outlines one approach for getting that info.

Individuals do best transferring their knowledge in a methodical way so that they can choose which knowledge is important and leave the rest to the dustbin of history.  In our process, we start with identifying blocks of work (we call knowledge silos) and then deconstructing those knowledge silos into tasks and skills.

Each task or skill is prioritized for the unique ‘apprentice’ and then broken down into manageable chunks so that it can be taught in one hour on the  job. Each hour is then broken down into questions and answers that organize the conversation between the expert and his or her apprentice. For a typical silo of knowledge that takes 2-12 months to learn, the initial breakdown into tasks and skills can be done in a matter of hours and then each hour of knowledge transfer can be scheduled as needed.

Headshot of Brett HaughBrett Haugh, the principal and executive vice president at Ascende Human Capital Consulting, says clear communication is the key to sharing knowledge across generations. But it’s not always easy.

Baby boomers, Generation X, and Millennials have a diverse set of values, communication and management style that present major obstacles and the transfer of knowledge. While Boomers and X’ers can collaborate and communicate somewhat effectively in the workplace, the Boomers and Millennials are opposing in dramatic fashion. Due to the limited number of Gen X’ers in the workplace, Boomers are forced to share their captured knowledge with Millennials. Challenge is created when generations communicate ineffectively.

Unsurprisingly, a variety of challenges stand between the knowledge wealth of a retiring generation and the eagerness of the next one. Good companies must rise to those challenges.

Bridging the knowledge gap

Old and New way of thinking imagePersonalities and generational style differences between generations should always be factored, says Brett Haugh.

When Boomers do take on the responsibilities to transfer knowledge, they prefer to meet in person and lecture the younger generation. Information is power among Boomers, and sharing or withholding information retains power. Millennials don’t like long meetings. They prefer to work at home, rather than the office. They do not like lectures, but will self-serve using online tools as resources.

Another challenge, says Lauren Herring, might be

Baby Boomers who are too set in their ways to fully recognize the impact of the sweeping technological, cultural, and demographic changes that are happening. So you want to mine the right information from the Baby Boomers without being encumbered by any long-held biases.  This is tricky and takes patience and time, but time ultimately well-spent.

For Brian Wilkerson, social interaction may be a key to better professional interplay.

Some companies are also creating opportunities for informal interaction such as doing charity work or social events to create collaboration outside of work that spills over into the workplace.

Keep working the mine

The baby boomer generation engineered one of the most successful business and production periods in American history. As they prepare for their well-earned retirements, companies should be doing everything possible to help their boomers pull of one last great achievement: leaving their knowledge legacy for future generations to build on.

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