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Capturing O&M Knowledge and Expertise from (Soon-to-be) Retirees


March 14, 2016 by John W. Carpita, PE
Category: Administration

Capturing O&M Knowledge and Expertise from (Soon-to-be) Retirees

Recent blog posts by Marci Wright (A Basic Approach to Succession Planning) and myself (4 Things You Should Know About Asset Management) made me curious as to what agencies are doing to capture knowledge and expertise from retirees in the O&M arena.

Think about this: your agency probably has field operators who will be retiring sometime in the next few years. These are the folks that know that the pumps in sewer lift station five work better if you don’t use the factory recommended settings. They also know that the water main on James Street is just outside the right-of-way about a foot and a half and not where the system map shows it. And they can tell just by the sound a water pipe makes when tapped with a ballpeen hammer whether it is likely to fail soon.

Your O&M folks probably have critical information about little-known processes or procedures that aren’t in the standard operating procedures (SOPs). Before they head off to Arizona or Mexico you will want to do a “brain dump” of the knowledge veteran employees have accrued over years of running your utility and transportation systems. Since there is no app (as yet anyway) for brain dumps, you will want to work with the retirees to transfer knowledge to younger employees either through job shadowing and/or a written guide to best practices.

So, how can your agency accomplish this knowledge transfer? I surveyed a number of city-county engineers and public works directors to see what types of strategies they were using to ensure a smooth transition.

As one public works director put it, the key to knowledge transfer is to “work consciously and persistently at building and maintaining documented standard work processes, practice manuals, and providing improved on-boarding and training of new employees.” Applying asset management principles, even if incrementally, will build on those manuals and processes and provide a context for gathering and storing invaluable institutional knowledge of veteran employees.

For those veteran employees who are not enthusiastic about using computers and data collectors, one director recommended using “oral history.” Encourage them to use voice recorders, either standalone or in their cell phones, and to record things that come to them as they drive around. Someone else with good computer skills could then do a daily or weekly "download" of these recordings and enter the information into the appropriate databases.

If you have the luxury of both budget and flexibility, you could hire people into “replacement” roles before the incumbent retires. This may prove to be difficult because in many agencies elected officials have to authorize additional positions. Some public works departments have been getting around this problem by having authorized positions on the books but held as “vacant”. “Using these 'vacant' but empty FTE positions judiciously has led to success for short-term double-filling of a retiring position,” one individual told me.

Another agency recommended mentorship. Those less tenured staff who want to learn from those who are more experienced (and likely to retire soon) are given opportunities to do so by being assigned to spend time with them when expedient. The mentors are, “instructed to stand back and only provide advice in hands-on scenarios so that the person being mentored  can learn the work.” Coaching experienced workers how to mentor is a great idea as well. When someone is preparing to retire, ask them to review SOPs frequently and provide resources for them to capture needed updates.

As much as possible, take advantage of the latest GIS and mapping technologies to digitize your utility and transportation system information with input from imminent retirees. Give your field crews the ability crews the ability to use and correct that information in the field.

Finally, be ready to learn from your mistakes. One public works director summed it up well: “We would be unrealistic to expect that the loss of 80-100 years of combined experience would not result in 'I-didn’t-know-better' type mistakes/screw-ups. In response, we have made this our credo out of necessity: Mistakes are acceptable so long as we do our very best to correct the situation, learn lessons from the situation, improve our performance as a result of the mistake, and minimize the chances of it happening again.”


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About John W. Carpita, PE

Public Works Consultant John is MRSC’s resource for engineering design, purchasing and bidding issues, contract document preparation, construction contract issues, local improvement districts, sewer, water, storm drainage and solid waste issues, as well as resource conservation. He’s a registered professional engineer and has had a widely varied 42-year career as a consultant, county engineer, city engineer and project manager.

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