How to Retain Knowledge When an Employee Leaves

Your team’s implicit knowledge about how work gets done is one of your company’s greatest assets—so what do you do when someone walks out the door? Employees take up to 70% of company knowledge with them when they retire or take another job, altering your company’s culture and workflow.

With 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring from the workforce each day and a tight job market, it’s never been more important to develop a knowledge retention system. The secret? Smart organizations have a plan to encourage knowledge transfer techniques long before an employee even thinks about leaving. 

How to Retain Knowledge within Companies

  1. Establish your culture. Your employees can take pieces of company culture with them when they leave, so it’s important to establish it early and reinforce it often. 
    1. Clarify and define. What is your company’s “why”? Make sure you clearly state what makes your company stand out. Online retailer Everlane is excellent at expressing their dedication to “radical transparency” on their website and beyond. 
    2. Know your customs. Do you hold regular stand-up meetings? What is your feedback system? What are your work hours? These might be simpler than you think. For instance, TINYPulse suggest their employees start meetings at odd times, like 10:28 AM, to prevent tardiness. Capture whatever established work processes help your team perform at their best.
  2. Develop a knowledge transfer strategy. You now have a clear understanding of your team works, but don’t assume that these best practices will be seamlessly transmitted to new members. Take a few steps to create an explicit strategy. 
    1. Find out what’s indispensable. Identify what you need every single employee to know, given the specific knowledge that’s at risk. TVA, Siemens, and Delta Airlines do this by surveying their best employees with the most tenure to find out the skills they needed to preserve. 
    2. Establish knowledge-transfer best practices. Use interviews, mentoring, storytelling, or practice communities to maintain consistency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs videotapes their veteran employees lecturing on what it was like to be part of old missions, and use it to help socialize new employees. 
    3. Create a knowledge database. Technology can help capture, share, and reuse knowledge; choose the simplest system that works for your team. Intel created Intelpedia an internal, company-wide Wiki for employees to reference.
    4. Include culture in onboarding. Don’t let this knowledge accumulate without being referenced; instead, introduce new employees to the culture from the very beginning. JAMF Software’s month-long onboarding process is designed to acquaint new hires with the company’s culture, role, and product. 
  3. Prepare for knowledge transfer in the future. The sooner you prepare, the better;  start with the people who are most important to your organization. Ultimately, your goal is to help employees to exit smoothly and leave a strong legacy. 
    1. Create a “skill family.” Build redundancy into your planning. Shell always has three people ready for critical positions and processes at all times, so even if there is a vacancy, there will be a backup plan. 
    2. Consider implementing flexible retirement plans. Not all employees want to leave the workforce entirely; some may be open to phasing out their work, or consulting part-time. The US Department of Defense is implementing a phased retirement program to help manage their day-to-day needs. 

Takeaway: Whether through retirement or quitting, your team’s makeup will evolve, so make knowledge retention a top priority. Every employee contributes to continuing a company’s best practices, and storing that information requires long-term planning and preparation. 

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