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Capturing the Knowledge:  Federal Agencies Work to Retain Baby Boomers’ Wisdom

By Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist

Within the next decade, throngs of Baby Boomers will be eligible for retirement. Recognizing the potential losses, federal agencies are now working to capture Boomers’ knowledge before they go.

Approximately 60% of the executive branch’s 1.6 million white-collar employees and 90% of about 6,000 federal executives will be eligible for retirement over the next 10 years, according to an August 2007 study released by the international communications company Tandberg.

The report, based on a survey of 171 federal managers, found that 78% of managers reported being somewhat or very concerned about their agency’s current knowledge management processes, and federal agencies are ill prepared to pass on the knowledge and skills of the current workforce.

“They’re calling it a crisis,” said Dr. Rachel Day, an industrial-organizational psychologist who works as a senior consultant for ICF International. “They seem to all be eligible for retirement at the same time.”

Based in Washington DC, ICF partners with government and commercial clients to deliver consulting services and technology solutions. Day, who is also a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), has been working on knowledge capture at ICF for the last 2 years. She said the field has “really heated up” over the last year.

One of her clients, she said, is facing nearly 80% of its leadership personnel coming of retiring age in the near future. Without capturing the knowledge of these employees, she added, federal agencies like this are risking losing valuable resources and efficiency.

“During the first couple of months after an employee retires, the company or agency is really losing its resources, so productivity usually declines throughout the department,” Day said. And the Boomers represent a large resource.

A 2007 survey by The McKinsey Quarterly states that the Baby Boomer generation is “the best-educated, most highly skilled aging workforce in U.S. history.” The study goes on to state that the generation accounts for a disproportionate share of U.S. “knowledge workers”—51% of all managers and 45% of all professionals, like doctors and lawyers—though they make up only 41% of the workforce.

Over the past year, Day has been working with federal agencies that make up a vast majority of ICF’s clients to plan for this succession within their organizations.

“I think a lot of agencies feel really uncomfortable having their retirement rate so high,” she said.
“A lot of times, those retiring workers have worked at their job for 10–15 years and they are the only ones who fully understand the policy and procedures of their job.”

That is why several federal agencies have contracted with ICF to implement knowledge capture techniques.

Day led the development of knowledge capture templates to be used during 2-hour face-to-face interviews with pending retirees.

The templates, she said, outline the different areas of knowledge the agency is trying to capture, including meetings, responsibilities, important contacts, and chains of command.

The templates also attempt to get at the tacit knowledge of the position, knowledge that is rarely written down but helpful in improving the efficiency of the position. Such information includes how to speak with certain people and the unwritten codes of conduct amongst them.

“One of the things that have been helpful is we have them imagine that their successor is here,” she explained.  “We ask them, ‘What would you tell them?’ Then they are able to visualize it.”

The knowledge that is captured is used to get new employees up to speed much faster and limits the reductions in productivity that are usually seen when an employee retires.  But Day said knowledge capture doesn’t just benefit future employees and leaders. It also benefits those who are retiring.

“The folks that we do interview feel really relieved because before they felt that guilt, and they thought nobody was going to be able to do their job,” she said. “They think, ‘now I can retire.’”

Succession planning has been an important topic in I-O psychology for a long time, helping develop scientific practices for dealing with changes in the workforce. Day said knowledge capture is the newest subset of this succession planning.

The concept is so new, she said, many companies and agencies have yet to consider implementing it.

According to the Tandberg study, while 87% of managers said they collect official operating processes and procedures, only 67% collected roles, responsibilities, and chain of command information and even less—37%—collected information about how to do things more efficiently.

Dr. Joseph Banas, also a member of SIOP, has worked for the last 2 years as a human capital consultant at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Workforce Management Office.

Banas said NOAA is now in the process of developing an enterprise-wide knowledge management system, but that much of the knowledge capture work thus far has been left to individual offices within NOAA.  “Business units have tended toward solutions tailored to their unique needs,” he said.

This is caused by two things, Banas said. First, the importance of knowledge capture differs within NOAA’s offices, which includes such diverse agencies as the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Office of Atmospheric Research.

 “In some offices, potential retirees are working on legacy systems, technology planned for replacement, so there may or may not be a need for knowledge capture,” he said. “Second, even if an office anticipates a knowledge loss problem in the future, other constraints make knowledge capture a lower priority. Everyone agrees it’s a good idea, but given the tight budgets we work under and other resource constraints, it’s sometimes hard to devote resources toward the issue.”

But the agencies may not want to wait too long. With private companies, Day said, these resources can more easily be captured. But the federal government is in a unique situation.

“With a lot of companies, ideally you hire a replacement before the other person leaves, “Day explained. “But in the federal government that’s difficult because strict budget limitations make it difficult to have two people working the same job at once.”

However, Banas said, budget and staffing constraints may not always outrank the need for knowledge capture strategies. “While some agencies are beginning to address knowledge management, it probably won’t get more widespread attention until something happens, some incident involving knowledge management, that will force agencies to examine the issue more closely.”