Knowledge Transfer is Critical to Companies' Competitive Edge

Aug. 27, 2008
As Baby Boomers leave, 'U.S., Canada, and many European nations face the loss of experience and knowledge on an unprecedented scale,' says the Conference Board.

Most companies do not have a plan to manage and transfer knowledge and even fewer factor cross-generational challenges into business strategy, says a recent report from The Conference Board.

"As the Baby Boom generation of corporate leaders and experts approaches retirement, businesses in the U.S., Canada, and many European nations face the loss of experience and knowledge on an unprecedented scale," said Diane Piktialis, Mature Workforce Program Leader at The Conference Board and co-author of the report with Kent Greenes, Program Director, Learning & Knowledge Management Council. "Younger workers cant be counted on to fill the void, as they lack the experience that builds deep expertise. They also tend to change jobs frequently, taking their technological savvy and any knowledge theyve gained with them."

In the past, the expectation of passing along knowledge and leaving a legacy fit well within the cultural values of long-tenured employees who spent their careers with the same company. But in todays workplace, where four generations work side-by-side, knowledge is not always filtered well throughout an organization, says Piktialis.

The report describes how best to capture and transfer knowledge across generations by emphasizing:

  • Choosing the best knowledge transfer methods for specific needs.
  • Understanding generational learning preferences of both the sources and the receivers of knowledge.
  • Adapting knowledge transfer methods to accommodate multigenerational preferences and learning styles.
  • Making the business case for cross-generational knowledge transfer.
  • Best practices -- what some companies are doing right today.

The Conference Board points out that varying learning styles will affect how companies can harvest knowledge. The cite four generations in the workplace today with distinct learning styles:

  • Matures or Veterans (born 1925-1945) and Baby Boomers (born 1955-1964) -- Were educated through formal classroom instruction and reading printed text, and remain comfortable with both. They are verbally adept.
  • Gen Xers (born 1965-1979) -- Adapt easily to both formal and informal learning although they strongly prefer the latter. Their highest priority is for action learning in the workplace where they are finding real solutions to real problems. Having adopted computers in their adolescence, these employees are more visual than verbal.
  • Gen Yers or Millennials (born 1980-1995) -- Referred to as "digital natives," they were born into the computer world. They want to do, not be told. Jumping right in, trial and error, and connectivity are hallmarks of this generation. They value group and team learning and connect through new social media, from blogs to virtual collaboration environments.

"Knowledge transfer is not as widely practiced as the potential business benefits and workforce demographics suggest it should be," concludes Greenes. "In a knowledge economy, firm-specific knowledge is critical to the sustainability, performance and innovation of organizations facing the imminent retirement of large numbers of baby boomers."

Concludes Piktialis: "Is the sky falling because Boomer knowledge and business wisdom are leaving organizations at an unprecedented rate? Probably not. But there is significant opportunity in strategic and targeted knowledge transfer."

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