Knowledge walking out the door: The baby boom "brain drain" in government

The front edge of the baby boomers is retiring. Is your agency's knowledge going with them?

If you were born between 1946 and 1964 you are part of the "baby boom" generation. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census estimates that the group that holds the "boomer" moniker is made up of at least 82,826,479 individuals. I sometimes feel that 82 million of them work in government.

Beginning in 2011, a shift in the labor force is going to occur because the front edge of the boomer generation is going to turn 65. While many are concerned about a potential labor shortage, I am mostly concerned about a sudden and continuous brain drain from our organizations.

All around me are workers who are at or nearing retirement, depending on when they actually started working for government. Many of these are middle and senior managers who carry with them a great deal of institutional knowledge. I know of whole sections and departments that will be retiring at the same time or following each other out the door continuously for several years.

If this doesn't bother you, it should. Why? Mainly because government usually does a horrible job of cross-training and making sure that there is more than one person responsible for a function.

It's not that government workers don't like to share knowledge (I'm being kind here) but that government organizations typically are not staffed with a lot of redundancy in positions, and the workers in these positions generally wear many hats. Which means two things: One, that there is a great breadth of knowledge contained in a single individual. Two, that individual is usually too busy to document their knowledge or take the time to share it with someone who can step in and fill their shoes. So when they go, so does their knowledge.

As I look around organizations that I'm familiar with, I see this as a real potential problem. It's not good to have all your "old" hands leaving at or near the same time. But at the same time, we can't prevent it. So in order to prevent the potential problem, we need to prepare for it. Kind of like the Y2K problem. Proper preparation led to a potential disaster being hardly a flash in the pan.

So what can we do to prepare? There are a number of things that we can do if our organizations can wrap themselves around the fact that there is change coming, whether they like it or not. Here are some suggestions in no particular order:

  • Forestall the inevitable. No, this does not mean encouraging your older workers to take on increasingly large amounts of debt so they cannot afford to retire. It is documented that a significant portion of the baby boom generation desires to work past 65. Help them to do so. How? By creating incentives that make it more enticing to stay at work, such as working from home, part-time work, job sharing, phased retirement, job swapping, and a host of other HR and Finance policy and procedure changes that can effect a change of mind in the older worker to stick around.
  • As you know, forestalling the inevitable is not a solution in itself. It is just a means of buying yourself a little more time to prepare for a worker's departure. The real answer lies in putting processes and procedures into place that allow for an orderly transition of knowledge to others in the organization. This can be done through mentoring programs, fast track programs, business process documentation and reengineering, cross-training, and the creation of "knowledge bases" and expert systems, as well as probably a dozen other things I haven't mentioned.
  • Of course, being IT-oriented, you can also look upon this as a way to introduce new technologies and ways of thinking into your organization. Our current methods of storing knowledge and communicating in our organizations (via e-mail with attached documents or files in a shared folder) are horribly inefficient ways of knowledge management. It is time to shift towards Wikis and blogs and searchable databases as a way of communicating internally and externally in our organizations. 3,000 emails in someone's inbox is not a good way to pass on knowledge to the replacement worker. A central store of knowledge is what is needed. The closer you can come to that, the better off you are.

Personally, I have to deal with this issue now. I plan on tackling it through mentoring, cross-training, and retraining, as well as trying to establish a new way of doing business through tools such as Wikis and blogs. The point is, many of us will have to start dealing with this as time draws nearer to 2011. Yes, it is only 2006, but time flies when you are getting old ;-) So start preparing now.


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