How to Fight the Brain Drain when Baby Boomers Retire
While many baby boomers are preparing to leave the workforce; organizational leadership at most companies are not prepared to lose them. As reiterated in a McKinsey Quarterly Survey, the baby boomer generation is “the best-educated, most highly skilled aging workforce in U.S. history. Although they’re only about 40 percent of the workforce, they comprise more than half of all managers and almost half of all professionals, such as doctors and lawyers.”
Despite tension and workplace inefficiencies caused by generational conflicts, when the baby boomers finally blow out the candles on their hard-earned retirement cakes and exit the building, executive leadership will face a daunting task. The loss of business intelligence and corporate knowledge these baby boomers possessed—especially in R&D-focused companies—could amount to billions of dollars of lost intellectual capital. To mitigate this potential massive loss, leaders must act fast. Even in organizations with younger employees who experience much smaller baby boomer attrition rates, such organizations must still consider knowledge management issues. After all, institutional knowledge loss can also occur when key employees resign or are lost due to illness, tragedy, or being poached by another company.
Robert’s Rules of Innovation II posits this key question: “How do leaders keep the older generation actively engaged so that the process of extracting and and archiving key information is interesting, challenging, and rewarding?”
The following eight techniques (which are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 8 of Robert’s Rules of Innovation II) have been found to be effective:
- Establish and share rules of and rationales of engagements. Determine how information gathering will be accomplished (i.e., via questionnaire, survey, online system, etc.). For example, will a salesperson enter into the client management system a key nugget of information that is critical for fortifying key client relationships? Such nugget(s) could include: that the company has a client named Robert Jones who despises being called Bob and happens to love receiving a personal phone call on his birthday. If this the case, make the sure to tell the whole company not only to follow this system but also why they should be doing this.
- Scan the personnel landscape. Create an electronic database that charts individual or shared “expertise clusters” across the organization and uses relationship software sometimes called ”spiders” to track this knowledge by employee or department. The database should have a high enough level of functionality so that if a key term or phrase were searched either by project or product name, the database would return a specific individual or group of people who share this expertise cluster. To prevent brain drain and knowledge loss, a company needs to keep tabs on which specific employees have specific knowledge on certain products or projects.
- Set up a database or system for collecting information. Somewhat similar to the above tip, in organizations (especially larger ones), it is not sufficient to just verbally dump knowledge from one person to another. Since information gets lost in translation (ever play the childhood game of “telephone”?) and these knowledge dumpers/dumpees may not be around in a couple years, you’re going to want a searchable, accessible version of this knowledge dump. Database knowledge solutions vary in terms of complexity and functionality; at the very least, you will want to create a sustainable “knowledge library” system to capture key data, information, and processes.
- Create a home for—and invite—nuanced information. Some types of knowledge can only be obtained through actual experience. For example, the knowledge that foaming liquid soap bottles will leak during shipment unless the right type of let-off torque (which varies according to bottle size) keeps the bottle in place. If you are in the know about experience-borne, nuanced knowledge, make sure you write down this key-bit of information and pass the critical information along in a reference manual for your colleagues in case of your departure; in other words: “Don’t make your coworkers reinvent the wheel.” Encourage other employees to do the same thing if they are in possession of this special type of experience-borne knowledge.
- Build bridges early on. Encourage interaction between different generations of coworkers (for example, a mentor/apprentice relationship between new millennial employees and baby boomers). Ideally, this can foster a feeling of camaraderie among employees, avoid conflicts and bottlenecks on innovation teams, and lead to the transfer of key knowledge across ranks and age groups.
- Hosts events to bring people together. Whether it’s a company-sponsored happy hour or biweekly donut and coffee chats in the office break room, informal exchanges can often lead to opportunities for verbal or hands-on knowledge sharing across ranks and generational groups. It is also worthwhile to hold an organization-wide seminar in effective knowledge-sharing principles and practices.
- Use social media and online tools. Use social media and online tools—such as a a closed LinkedIn group, a subscription based online whiteboard or collaborative application, an editable Google Docs document or spreadsheet, blog, forum, company intranet, and etc.—where company retirees have a “virtual” place to go and enter insights they may recall after leaving the company. Likewise, don’t be afraid to crowdsource, via email blasts or group messaging tools, from company retirees. Just because retired employees are no longer on company payroll, doesn’t mean they don’t feel allegiance to their former company and the often want to help out current employees with their years (if not decades) of on-the-job obtained knowledge.
- Make knowledge sharing a continual, perpetual habit, not a one-time act. Make knowledge sharing a part of of your company culture. You want people to share (and meticulously document) what they know; after all, being tight-lipped about your specific knowledge is counterproductive and anti-innovation. So do whatever it is you can to invite and incentivize knowledge sharing among all ranks and generations in your company.
For more information about how to promote and implement innovation at your company, check out the innovation books Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival and the recently published Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation.
 Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation (See p. 157)
 Intelligence Lost: The Boomers Are Exiting. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2016, from
 Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation (See p. 160)
 Robert’s Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation (See pp. 160-162)
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