Plugging retirement knowledge drain (Guest Commentary)

HR needs to capture knowledge before it walks out the door for last time
By Kasey Martin and Krista Uggerslev
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/04/2012

The oldest of the baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, turned 66 this year and more than 40 per cent of the Canadian workforce is between the ages 45 and 64, according to Statistics Canada.

With an average retirement age of 62, a massive wave of employees are preparing to retire. The Conference Board of Canada suggests this growing rate of retirement is contributing to a projected 10 per cent labour shortage — more than two million workers — by 2025.

HR managers are increasingly concerned with the deficit left behind when an employee retires. Not only is it challenging to fill a retired worker’s position, it is challenging to find someone with comparable knowledge and efficient and effective work capabilities. Boomers have tended to spend their whole career at a single organization, and are more apt to be knowledge workers.

There are two types of knowledge held by workers — tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is about specific tasks or job processes. It may be contained in official documents (such as training or policy manuals) or found in stored data (such as personal papers or electronic files).

Given its overt nature, explicit knowledge can be taught to successors through on-the-job training sessions or by having a retiring worker demonstrate or write down what they know.

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is gained over time and through experience. It is very personalized, unique and may be difficult to articulate. Although it may be shared through anecdotes, this assumes the retiring worker is aware of what he knows and aware of who might benefit from receiving the knowledge.

Retaining retiring employees’ knowledge, both explicit and tacit, is beneficial to organizations for several reasons. Without access to this knowledge, it may take employees remaining in the work unit longer to get up to speed and it may be challenging for replacement employees to learn and gain the experience to perform at similar levels to the retirees.

Additionally, losing knowledge along with retiring employees has drawn concerns about the quality of work produced, the quality of customer and client relations and efficient work progress.

To minimize valuable knowledge retiring along with workers, employers may want to understand what motivates retirees to share their knowledge before retirement, as well as examine the effectiveness of policies and practices for knowledge-sharing and succession planning.

We surveyed 252 retiring employees across Canada about knowledge-sharing. We found that as job satisfaction, feelings of being supported and emotional attachment to the organization increased, retiring employees were more likely to plan to share their knowledge before walking out the door for the last time.

And when an employer had knowledge-sharing policies and practices in place, retiring workers were more likely to plan to share their knowledge.

We also found retiring workers believe more strongly in sharing their knowledge when they perceive their knowledge to be valuable to the organization — the more the organization would miss what they know, the more apt they are to want to share.

Lastly, retiring employees reported greater plans to share their explicit knowledge when they had a financial stake in their organization, such as a pension plan or stock options post-retirement.

To inspire workers to share their knowledge before retiring, employers can schedule meetings between the retiring workers and their successors, and implement policies outlining expectations for knowledge-sharing before retirement.

They can give workers a financial stake in the company, and remind them how much their knowledge is valued and how knowledge-sharing before retirement can benefit them financially post-retirement.

With today’s business practices, this may be challenging. One-half (52 per cent) of retiring employees do not know who their successors would be once they retired and, on average, they have 22 years’ experience at their most current organization, found our survey. These statistics signal that valuable knowledge could be falling through the cracks.

Paying attention to knowledge-sharing and succession planning now may pay off in spades as the silver wave of retirement hits it crest.

Kasey Martin is a research associate at the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. Her research focuses on knowledge-sharing at organizations. She can be reached at Krista Uggerslev is an applied research chair at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on leadership, recruitment and talent management. She can be reached at

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