I spoke with David DeLong, author of "Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce," for the latest issue of MDM. He shared with me a case study about effective knowledge transfer from the older generation of workers to the younger.
DeLong features a host of case studies on his Web site, www.lostknowledge.com. In one, about manufacturer Boston Scientific, the company faced the retirement of highly skilled workers who were specialists in knitting, weaving and yarn texturizing work on intricate machines that knit or weave special yarn into tube-like grafts. (This plant specialized in manufacturing surgical grafts and fabrics used to treat vascular disease.)
These workers had been around since the late 1950s, and most were in their 60s and 70s. The knowledge they had was crucial to the company's operations, so the company had to find a way to train younger workers to do the same job.
Read the case study on Boston Scientific here.
Some of the lessons learned in the case study:
- Businesses should regularly analyze their work force in the context of strategic objectives. Some knowledge held by older workers is less important due to shifts in direction, and other new capabilities will need to be acquired. But some skills and knowledge will clearly be at risk. According to DeLong, the sooner these risks are identified, the more choices management has for taking action.
- The most important step Boston Scientific took was identifying apprentices who could learn the high tech knitting, weaving, and yarn texturizing skills. But putting older and younger workers together isn't enough. DeLong quotes a fellow author: Older workers often tell me that they'd be glad to teach from their experiences, but they don't know where to begin or how to make sure they're effective. They need tools and a process that they can follow, plus some way of measuring their success," said Steve Trautman, author of Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader's Guide to Knowledge Transfer.
- And, lastly, security - make your veteran employees know that they are not in danger of being pushed out of their jobs, and that you only want to put into place a process for transferring the valuable skills they have before they retire.