Avoiding Brain Drain

You know George. He's the guy you call when you have a problem. George has worked at his current job with an oil company nearly 30 years and there's very little he hasn't faced. Rumor has it he can solve any problem in 15 minutes or less.

The good news is you have a vital knowledge asset in George. The bad news is he's opted for early retirement. And when George leaves, so does his knowledge.

So why didn't you protect yourself from losing all that knowledge. Business moves too quickly for you to take the months, even years, necessary to rebuild lost knowledge. Time lost trying to replace key knowledge can cost a fortune. More importantly, financial losses resulting from not having the knowledge when you need it could cripple your company.

So what can you do? Is it too late? Ideally, you should have worked on the transfer of knowledge long before George began planning his retirement. In the real world, however, it's not uncommon for companies to wait until the eleventh hour to begin thinking about what to do. Thankfully, there are practical, low-tech, costeffective ways to capture George's tacit knowledge and make it available to other people who need it.

The key is a targeted decision-making/ problem-solving focus. Don't try to capture everything George knows or try to build a computerized version of his brain. Instead, focus only on the key processes, actions and behaviors that illustrate how George does what he does. You want to capture the steps of the process including how, what, when and where, then deliver this information back in the form of solutions or knowledge nuggets that are immediately actionable.


Losing knowledge when an expert quits, retires or is hired away is worrisome enough, but so often companies lose knowledge inside the organization while people are still there.

Experts get promoted, transferred or take other jobs within the company and we lose track of what they know.

When people change jobs we tend to associate them with the new role and thereby make a terrible psychological mistake. We generalize and unconsciously assume they only know things related to that one job. It's as though we forget about all the other experience they bring to the table.


One of the smartest things you can do is implement a Yellow Pages type of "find the expert" directory. Not only is this generally a low-cost investment in technology, people and time, it's one that can offer a dramatic return on investment. The key in making the program work rests in the quality of the information provided. It should not focus on basic bio or resume-type data. Rather, it should focus on knowledge and applied expertise. It should be a directory of "who's worked where, doing what, with what and with whom."


In order to identify the people in your organization whose minds possess key knowledge, you should start with your business strategies, objectives and core competencies. What is it that your organization absolutely must do to be successful. In the case of George's company, one of the key competencies is resolving oil-well problems quickly and efficiently. Every minute a well isn't pumping, the company is losing money.

Try this simple exercise. Think about people in your organization who have key knowledge in their heads. You'll want to focus on vital knowledge and abilities that aren't easily available anywhere else or easily replaced if the expert becomes unavailable to you.

It might be knowledge concerning:

• A relationship with a particular customer

• A key operational process

• A key technology or system

• A geography or country and its business customs

• How to pick the right person for the right job or how to put together a winning team

• The internal infrastructure, the tools, the culture, "how to get things done around here."

Time lost trying to replace key knowledge can cost a fortune.

Remember: Not everyone in your organization is a George or has the potential to be a George. You don't need to capture and classify everything that everybody knows. Your objective is to recognize which knowledge is most important to the success of your organization, who has it, and who would benefit from it most.

In some situations it is obvious what kind of knowledge is important (for example, knowing where to drill for oil). In others, there may be a fair amount of preexisting explicit knowledge that you can use to build the foundation of your employee knowledge base. Sometimes, the tool may be a manual or a quick-reference card. Other times, an interactive, computer-based training tool might be more appropriate. Video or live telecasts are also good delivery vehicles. Apprenticeships and mentoring might also be appropriate.

The point is, the simplicity or complexity of the process depends on a multitude of factors: the nature of the knowledge, where you are in the process, the willingness of the expert and the caliber and skills of people supporting the exercise.


George is looking forward to his retirement. He's buying that ranch he's always wanted and plans on spending lots of time with his grandchildren. But the door that closes behind him doesn't have to seal itself. George will probably be interested in staying connected to what he spent a lifetime doing and became an expert in. He might even be willing to work on an as-needed basis, so long as you're careful to structure the relationship in a way that balances his new priorities and recognizes the value of his expertise.

Make a concerted effort to maintain relationships with former employees — people of all ages who have worked for the company. This includes those who quit, got transferred or promoted, as well as those who retired.

Think about it. When people leave your company for another job, chances are they'll be doing new things that increase their knowledge.

They'll certainly have more external exposure, meet more people, use different kinds of technology, and so on.

The knowledge they acquire could well prove useful to you at some time in the future.

So, let George walk out the door, but capture his knowledge before he leaves. Then, maintain a positive relationship with him. When you need him, he'll be more inclined to be there for you.

Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library