Capture knowledge from key people before they exit

Issue: Your organization could lose critical knowledge if certain employees leave. Yet, top management often hesitates to address that risk.

Benefit: By taking steps to capture "at risk" information, you build a stronger organization … and boost your own standing.

Action: Identify the key people, and then work with execs to capture that important info before it’s lost.

Is critical knowledge about to literally walk out the door?

Perhaps a production head is nearing retirement and hasn’t passed her knowledge to a successor. Or the director of a regional office has shown signs of discontent and he’s the only person who knows your customers in three key states.

You can identify these risks and do something about them. Here’s how:

1. Identify ‘at risk’ employees

Look at everyone. Your list of employees with "at risk" knowledge will probably be longer than you expected. When you meet with leaders to discuss succession planning, your list will surprise them, too.

Not all employees with critical knowledge are long-tenured managers. You can uncover it in other employees, too. Examples:

  • An ambitious young saleswoman has built profitable accounts, but won’t be promoted because she’s stuck under a powerful sales supervisor.
  • An entrenched specialist who has amassed information in his brain, but not on paper, for years. If he leaves on short notice, where will you be?

2. Partner to capture knowledge

When meeting with leaders, make it clear that you haven’t made a list of employees who are likely to quit soon, but rather of employees who possess critical knowledge that needs to be captured.

Chances are that neither you nor your organization’s leaders will want to approach "at risk" managers directly. ("We think you are about to leave" is not a good message to send.) But that doesn’t prevent you from implementing these strategies:

Broaden the activity range of managers who possess such knowledge. If a certain director is your only liaison with all vendors, for example, don’t let him work in solitude. Encourage leaders to integrate him into broader committees and processes. When employees become more cross-functional, their knowledge is more widely shared.

Find ways to cultivate employees who can step into the shoes of key managers when they leave. Training isn’t the only way. Have those employees travel to conventions, make client calls and immerse themselves in settings where they can broaden their knowledge base.

Go beyond exit interviews. Also require the person to write out key procedures and contact lists. Some employers do more, including paying certain former employees to return for a few days or weeks to train their replacements. Remind leaders that if knowledge is golden, paying to capture it can be a good investment.