Knowledge Transfer: Empowering Baby Boomers

One of the keys to organizational growth and prosperity is a strong succession plan with open lines of communication for knowledge transfer. That being said, a study of 200 privately held businesses found that 47% of business owners over age 65 do not have a transition plan for themselves. Like Aesop’s fabled grasshopper who enjoyed the summer without giving thought to the changing seasons, distracted managers are prone to ignore the future, thereby leading their company to a chilly stand still.

In case you missed the current forecast for economic climate change, here are a few highlights. Most employers (83%) report having a significant number of Baby Boomers who are at or approaching traditional retirement age. There are 20 million less Gen Xers (ages 40–54) available to replace transitioning Baby Boomers. And Millennials (ages 24–39) are the most likely generation to voluntarily leave a position—60% are open to a new job and 21% changed jobs in the past year.

To the unprepared organization, these conditions will challenge their ability to remain competitive. To those with a heightened understanding of their workforce and a well-designed plan to fully engage them, these same factors will serve as the ingredients to their strategic succession plan and effective knowledge transfer.

Getting the Biggest Bang from your Boomers

It goes without saying that Baby Boomers have had more time to accumulate industry knowledge and experience than Gen Xers or Millennials. What might come as a surprise, however, is that some Boomers are hesitant to share their learnings with young talent. When today’s 65-year-old Boomers entered the workforce 40 years ago, it was a competitive time in our economy. There was a surplus of employees, and job opportunities were scarce. In order to qualify as valuable, you had to know more than your colleagues; information was power, and you held it close to the chest. Now we are asking them to give away that safely guarded advantage for free. Don’t expect that conversation to always go well.

One might argue that they are retiring soon, so what difference does it make? For starters, this is the accumulated acumen of their life’s work at stake here—it should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, it should not be assumed that Boomers already have a foot out the door. According to a 2016 survey, more than half of Baby Boomers plan to work past the age of 65 or not retire at all. It is anticipated that by the year 2025, there will be three times as many people age 65 and over in the workforce as there were in 1995. Therefore, asking them to give up their insights might feel like a threat to the job they are planning to keep. So, given their competitive career traits and the likely desire to stay employed, how do you encourage Baby Boomers to engage in knowledge transfer?

The answer is hidden in the problem. Because staying ahead of the competition is something Boomers value, succession planning should be positioned as a way for them to remain on the cutting edge of their career. Rather than focusing on knowledge transfer as a way to keep the company afloat when seasoned employees retire, it should be discussed as the critical next rung in their ladder of success. They are ascending from player to coach, student to master, “Padawan to Jedi.” Furthermore, formalizing the transfer process will help ensure you are capitalizing on the right information in a way that resonates with and engages Boomers. This next step is an honor—if executed well, it should increase their value at the firm as well as yield additional personal qualities of life.

Baby Boomers have acquired decades of wisdom from experiencing both success and failure on the job. By giving them the challenge of now teaching those lessons to others, you are helping them stay ahead of their peers who might be satisfied to only do what they have always done. They should not feel that by sharing their secrets they could lose their job to less expensive employees. Instead, they should feel empowered to train others and enrich themselves in a way that younger generations are incapable of doing at this point in their careers. Encourage your seasoned folks to stop defining themselves in terms of their job titles and start thinking about the skills they have built and the knowledge they have amassed. The results of these exchanges should be fueled by a mission to improve things rather than just maintaining the status quo.

Embracing this type of mindset will surely take time and assume some costs, but it’s important to capture Boomer wisdom while they’re still active in the workplace. Fortunately, efficient Gen Xers will ensure time devoted to knowledge transfer is well spent. Check back with us next month to learn how this oft-overlooked generation can be the secret ingredient to your future of fruitful and seamless transitions.