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Retaining Institutional Knowledge in the Wake of the Silver Tsunami

Retaining Institutional Knowledge in the Wake of the Silver Tsunami

For as long as we have been talking and reading about the coming “silver tsunami” you would think that the wave had already come and gone. However, we have only recently begun to see the leading edge of the baby boomer retirement wave. The initial effects have also been diluted somewhat as many boomers have been forced to delay their planned retirement dates while their investment portfolios recovered from the 2008 recession. But now that the economy is starting to improve, we are beginning to see a resumption in boomer retirements.

This blog focuses on the potential loss of institutional knowledge that the silver tsunami may leave in its wake, and some ways your organization may be able to capture and retain this valuable knowledge.

The Silver Tsunami Party is Just Getting Started

For some perspective, it is worth noting that the actual peak of the boomer exodus won’t be here for another 4 or 5 years as the people who were born around 1957, the very height of the baby boom, will be reaching age 65 and Medicare eligibility. So, the reality is that the silver tsunami party is just getting started, and for many local governments it’s going to be one retirement party after another for the next few years, with some potentially significant consequences.

Is Your Organization Prepared?

The question for your organization is: how prepared are you? Have you begun implementing your organization’s succession plan? Have you completed a demographic profile of your workforce? Do you know which departments are going to experience the greatest amount of turnover? Read Lynn Nordby’s 2017 blog, Succession Planning: Navigating the Incoming Wave, for some tips on ways to meet this challenge.

The Institutional Knowledge Drain

For many local governments, when those boomers finally do walk out the door, they will be taking with them a lifetime’s worth of institutional knowledge. While “institutional knowledge” may sound like a nebulous term, it’s hard to overstate the value of all of the accumulated knowledge and experience that your longtime employees possess. Much of this knowledge is of the “been there, done that” variety that is hard to transmit and capture. But it is exactly this type of knowledge and experience that can save your city or county from repeating costly mistakes or from wasting valuable time pursuing “new” strategies that are doomed to fail.

Your subject matter experts didn’t become experts overnight, and for many organizations the recovery period from losing so much cumulative knowledge (literally hundreds of years worth, in many cases) will take quite a while.

And If That Doesn’t Scare You…

A lot of valuable institutional knowledge isn’t written down, so unless it is recorded or captured somewhere before the next boomer exits, it’s just going to leave with that person. And here’s the scary part: when this happens, many of the folks that will be replacing them, through no fault of their own, won’t know what they don’t know! Ponder that one for a few moments and think about the many reasons you might want to keep this from happening to your organization or, at least, to do all that you can to mitigate its impacts.  

What Is to Be Done?

So, what is to be done? Short of doing a Vulcan mind meld (where’s Mr. Spock when you need him?) your basic task will be to capture as much of that hard-earned institutional knowledge as you can before those in possession of it leave. This will be especially true for those organizations that experience a high number of boomer retirements within a relatively short timeframe. Here are a few ideas that might help:

  • Provide Flexible Transitions. Think about offering flexible transitions (e.g., part-time work, job-sharing, or on-call arrangements) for retiring boomers that can extend their availability to help bridge the “knowledge gap” as their replacements step into their new roles.  

  • Make Video Recordings. Make video recordings in a “Q & A” format in which longtime staff members are asked to talk in detail about the work they do and to provide examples of challenges they have faced and how they have dealt with them.

  • Annotate Policy and Procedure Documents. Formal policy and procedure documents are useful for describing how things are supposed to get done but don’t always do a good job of describing how things really get done. Ask longtime staffers to provide annotations for your policies and procedures that highlight potential hazards and opportunities.

  • Review and Update Job Descriptions. Job descriptions don’t always reflect the actual duties and responsibilities of a position, particularly if they have not been updated in some time. Ask retiring boomers to review and update their job descriptions, highlighting key job requirements, tasks, responsibilities, and relationships.

  • Create a Searchable Knowledge Database. One of MRSC’s most valuable in-house research tools is our inquiry database (our Ask MRSC Archives offers selected inquiries from that database), which allows our consultants to search through thousands of our previous inquiry responses. Even though Pat Mason (a longtime MRSC legal consultant) retired several years ago, we can still benefit from his many years of service to Washington local governments.

  • Create a Contacts and Resources Database. Ask retiring boomers to share their go-to local, state, and national professional contacts, as well as lists of useful organizations and websites. Don’t forget to share MRSC’s website address and phone number (see below) with new employees!

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

What actions are you taking to capture and retain institutional knowledge? Tell us about them in the comment form below or email me.

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.

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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.