Retain your Knowledge During Layoffs

April 3, 2009
Instituting knowledge development programs can ensure that the knowledge and experience of baby boomers is passed on to future workers.

Times are tough for the manufacturing industry these days. It has been one of the hardest hit sectors by the economic crisis, with cuts seen in factories all across the country. Just last week the manufacturing sector lost 161,000 jobs. Over the past 108 months manufacturing has lost 5 million jobs. Only about 8% of the American labor force (12.7 million workers) still held manufacturing jobs at the start of February, down from 28% (14.6 million people) 50 years ago.

This dramatic decrease is largely the result of the economic crisis that is currently confronting most of the nation, and the world. However, in addition to the widespread economic turmoil, the manufacturing industry is also facing another pressing problem: the aging workforce. As baby boomers reach retirement age, manufacturing executives are seeing their workforce -- and more importantly, their knowledge base -- walk out the door, with limited incoming workers to replace them. Although many older workers may be opting to postpone retirement in the midst of the current economic situation, the aging workforce is a problem that is not going to go away and must be confronted immediately.

In times such as these it is more important than ever for manufacturing executives to identify the "knowledge custodians" within their workforces. Knowledge custodians are the go-to people that have mastered the ins and outs of the business and are a consistent and reliable resource for other employees. In many cases, these knowledge custodians are the older workers who have spent decades in the industry and have amassed significant experience and knowledge. This type of insight into the field is invaluable, and executives must act quickly to preserve it and pass it on to industry newcomers.

Instituting knowledge development programs is one effective way in which executives can ensure that the knowledge and experience of baby boomers is passed on to future workers. Often, these programs are centered on regularly administered employee assessments, which are designed to measure knowledge and competence in conjunction with confidence. The measure of confidence is critical because it provides a more complete view of the employee. If employees lack complete confidence in a job area, they are less likely to perform to their highest potential. Conversely, if they have total confidence in incorrect knowledge, they are more likely to pose a threat to the organization. Mistakes resulting from such misplaced confidence could mean millions lost through business downtime, poor procurement, personal injury claims and tribunal settlements.

With budgets swiftly decreasing and job cuts soaring, manufacturing executives must have a clear view of their staff and where their knowledge bases lie. Despite enormous job cuts, the American manufacturing industry is still producing at a high level and is still the world manufacturing leader when measured by value of produced goods. To maintain these production levels, remaining workers will likely be asked to take on more responsibilities. Often, this will mean undergoing additional training, which can be provided in part by the knowledge custodians of the company. Having a clear view of your employees' understanding and confidence is extremely helpful to have on hand when making cuts and redistributing workloads. Instituting an assessment based knowledge development program will help immensely in delivering this view.

An IDC white paper commissioned by Cognisco, a UK-based global provider of tools that measure employee knowledge and confidence, provides evidence to the effectiveness of assessment programs. For its primary research, IDC surveyed 400 U.S. and U.K. companies to uncover the costs of employee misunderstanding and look at the impact of assessment based knowledge development programs. The research revealed that more than 60% of companies with assessment programs in place reported fewer human errors and reduced employee turnover. More than 50% reported increased productivity, reduced data policy breaches, and a better health and safety record.

Another benefit of assessment based knowledge development programs is that they help improve and build upon current training programs. By learning what employees are retaining from such programs and what areas need more attention, executives can shape their training programs to be more effective in the future. This kind of insight will help better prepare future employees for the tasks at hand, and could save companies time and money lost in misplaced and ineffective training programs.

The benefits of identifying the knowledge custodians in an organization are three-fold. First, in the midst of industry-wide layoffs, knowing who possesses the most knowledge and job confidence will make layoff choices fairer and easier for executives faced with the difficult decisions. Second, after cuts have been made, this employee knowledge will help executives redistribute job roles and delegate additional responsibility to those who deserve and can manage it. And third, in an industry faced with an aging workforce, identifying knowledge custodians is necessary to extract valuable information from soon to be retirees. Assessment based knowledge development programs deliver this information to manufacturing executives who are confronted with stressful economic times and numerous difficult business decisions.

Introducing a knowledge development program is beneficial to companies in any situation, but given today's rocky economic climate, they are more valuable than ever. It's critical for executives to have a clear view of their workforce so they know how to best utilize it and reduce it where needed. Knowledge development programs provide that insight to help executives improve business processes and reduce risks, two essential goals any successful executive should strive toward.

Mary Clarke is CEO of Cognisco, which is a UK-based global provider of tools that measure employee knowledge and confidence.

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