Problem or Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

…to be continued…

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