The following article is based on a presentation entitled “Capturing Knowledge of Older Workers” at the HR Network Breakfast at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City on March 16, 2012. The presenter was Ryan Harris, Esq. SPHR, Chief Human Resource Officer at MetroPlus Health Plan.
The HR Network is sponsored by The Five O’Clock Club and is a vendor-free venue for HR professionals to meet informally, network with one another, and hear discussions of important issues of the day.
What’s past is prologue.
The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1
As a result of the recent recession, much of the discussion surrounding the aging workforce has focused on the fact that workers in their 60s and older are increasingly expected to remain in the workforce past traditional retirement age largely for financial reasons. Many older workers saw their investments take a substantial hit in the recession and now have less of a retirement fund to rely on. But, because of continuing advances in healthcare, our population is also living longer, and many older workers are now reluctant to walk away from their jobs merely because they have reached a certain age.
The immediate impact of this is a higher unemployment rate among young people, as well increasingly limited opportunities for advancement among young people who are employed. In law firms, for example, many younger associates are having difficulty being made partner because of an abundance of senior partners who are not opting for retirement at the traditional age.
“Demography is destiny,” however, as nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte observed.
Approximately 80 million Baby Boomers will eventually be dropping out of the workforce in the decades to come. While economic forces may slow this process somewhat—as Boomers remain in the workforce longer than initially projected—the numbers are an unavoidable reality.
Some employers have already begun addressing this reality by developing innovative systems to capture the knowledge of their older workers while they are still employed with the company, thereby gaining valuable insights about their roles in the organization that can be passed on and utilized by their successors.
Ryan Harris, Chief Human Resource Officer at Metroplus Health Plan, is overseeing the implementation of a detailed process within his organization that seeks to document the roles of aging workers who are likely to retire. These workers—some of whom may have been the only individuals to hold their specific position in the entire history of the company—possess potentially valuable knowledge about their function that might be lost if left undocumented.
At Metroplus, twenty-five percent of employees are now fifty years old and older. The company has a low turnover rate, which Harris attributes to a culture that has been very much like a family, providing an environment that is flexible and sensitive to the need for work/life balance. Metroplus also has a generous pension plan that allows for retirement with full benefits as early as age fifty.
As the health care industry has expanded, so has Metroplus, significantly increasing its employee count, as well as the scope of its services. This, in turn, has impacted the company culture, which Harris admits has now become more corporate. A greater volume of business has also resulted in employees needing to change focus or update their skills to accommodate new technologies. Some older workers, who may be more resistant to some of these developments, are finding the company’s pension plan increasingly attractive and have been opting for retirement.
“So we’re in a place,” Harris says, “where we have to respond by seeking ways to convert the individual knowledge of our aging workers into institutional memory.” By documenting the key functions and working relationships of older workers, the company possesses a wealth of information pertaining to each position. This can inform the employees’ successors and help them to become effective in the position.
Most of the documentation is done through an extensive interview process. “As part of our succession plan,” Harris notes, “we conduct a series of interviews which we call the Knowledge Transfer Process.” The process is divided into sections and includes questions concerning the employee’s history with the company, the employee’s personal role within the organization, a list of the employee’s necessary working relationships, as well as questions covering decision making, meetings, and other processes the employee is responsible for.
Section 1 (see below) shows some of the questions that the survey asks in the first part of the Knowledge Transfer Process, covering the employee’s history with Metroplus.
Employees who have been with the company for ten years or more have a wealth of information about the company in general as it has grown over the years.
In terms of organizational culture, Harris recalls a recent executive staff meeting during which tempers flared when the company’s fast-paced expansion was mentioned. One long-time executive in particular became frustrated with the seemingly endless jockeying for position among other executives, each trying to secure larger office space on higher floors with more status. He ruminated with a colleague on how the “family” atmosphere of the company was lost in all of the expansion. The era was gone when everyone knew everyone else and the offices were all on a single floor.
This episode, Harris says, “illustrated the tension that we feel from the rapid growth and the fact that we’re being forced to change the way that we do business.” And it’s this kind of tension—particularly where an organization expands and undergoes systemic change—that often will lead older employees to look more seriously at retirement.
Section 2 of the process examines the employee’s personal role within the organization. “It’s important for persons who follow in the footsteps of our older workers to understand how they’ve developed in the organization,” Harris says. “This information can assist their success or understanding, growth opportunities, relationships, duties, functions, and methods that made the incumbents successful in their positions.” Essentially, the information will help successors understand what the position looked like from the incumbent’s perspective.
Below are some of the questions employees are asked to determine their personal role within the organization.
Sometimes the responses that Harris and his team receive are surprisingly simplistic. For example, in answer to questions about the kind of training they received when they were initially hired, Harris says that some older workers have responded by laughing at the question and suggesting that, in the early days, an employee was lucky if “training” consisted of getting an I.D. badge and directions to the bathroom. At first glance, the employee response is not extremely informative—more of a laugh-line, actually. But even simple responses like these can help the company assess just how far it has come in terms of, in this case, new employee orientation.
“Nowadays, we have new hire orientations and all of these sophisticated blended-learning, on-boarding processes,” Harris says. “But the answers to these questions bring out information that shows the contrast between where we are now and where we came from.”
In Section 3 of the Knowledge Transfer Process, Harris focuses on the necessary working relationships that the employee’s position entails. “Regardless of what position they’ve performed within the organization, there are a multitude of relationships that exist,” Harris notes. “Some of those relationships may serve as critical alliances to the incumbent’s existing position.”
The third chart contains some of the questions asked to determine the employee’s most frequent interactions with colleagues, i.e., the person’s “necessary working relationships.”
In Section 4, Harris and his team document the employee’s decision-making process. “Any decision that they’re responsible for making should be documented,” Harris says, “to assist others in understanding their responsibilities.” Harris’ team will ask employees to list the decisions they are typically responsible for making on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. They also ask employees to list the people who have been most instrumental in guiding their decisions.
Finally, in the last two stages of the Knowledge Transfer Process, they analyze the meetings the employee is obligated to attend on a regular basis, as well as the basic operational processes that they employ in their job each day.
Section 5 contains sample questions concerning meetings.
Similarly, in documenting an employee’s daily operational processes (Section 6), the employee is asked to list the top five processes that they must complete (daily, weekly, and monthly) in order to accomplish the necessary tasks of their position, as well as the technology tools that the employee utilizes on a regular basis, including general software programs as well as programs that are specific to the employee’s position.
Documenting the operational processes involved in an employee’s position is key, Harris says, because, in some cases, this kind of information might be lost when the employee leaves. “Some of our older workers are the only people to ever occupy their job in the company’s history, so they are the sole proprietors of that information. No one else really knows exactly what they do.” Capturing and documenting the operational processes of the company’s long-term employees is therefore particularly important.
Harris adds that, in compiling all of this information, they still haven’t figured out all of the possible uses for the information. However, they are actively using the information in their succession planning by identifying high-potential employees who would be prepared to take over the job of an older, retiring employee. As part of their individual development plans, high-potential employees have access to the information compiled about a specific position in the Knowledge Transfer Process.
“We allow them to review the information that we’ve documented from the older workers,” Harris says, “to give them some perspective about the things that the older person has gone through. It creates a sort of jumping-off point for them to have conversations with the people that they would potentially replace, and it gives them some perspective on how things were in the past.”
A critical step in all of this is matching younger high-potential employees with older workers who may soon retire, and have them spend time together. “I think the only true way to effectively transfer knowledge is for them to shadow that person and be mentored by that person,” says Harris. While reading the information that they have captured in the Knowledge Transfer Process is important, the information is of limited value to the potential successor if they are not actively working with the older worker on projects, and watching how they make decisions and even what mistakes they may be making. The potential successor needs to be able to see how the knowledge that has been captured about the older worker’s position is actually applied on a daily basis in that position.
That said, Harris notes that he has encountered little reluctance among older workers in their willingness to fully participate in this process. “On the contrary,” he says, “our older workers freely share their information because, for the most part, they are the people who built the company.” These are seasoned employees who want to preserve their legacies and ensure that what they created is left in the right hands.
Metroplus is only one example of what a number of companies are now doing as they confront a graying workforce. Harris’ Knowledge Transfer Process is one way that a company can effectively capture and document the key insights that an employee has gained about his position in the company throughout his employment, and transfer that wealth of knowledge to younger workers coming up through the ranks.
Through initiatives like those in place at Metroplus and elsewhere, retiring workers will leave behind a lifetime of information gained throughout their careers that could be critical to the success of the generations of workers coming after them.