New Insights: Is Weak Retention Bleeding Your Institutional Knowledge?

How to Stop Turnover From Squeezing Out Institutional Knowledge

Every time a worker leaves your company, some amount of knowledge leaves with them. The key is minimizing this loss.

Even before the pandemic, employers were facing high turnover rates. Since then, many of them have had to let long-time workers go. In addition to losing their best employees, these businesses lost years’ worth of company knowledge.

Employee turnover isn’t always avoidable, but knowledge loss can be. While a knowledge management system can make a big difference, it’s no substitute for solid training and record-keeping.

Where should you start? By attacking the turnover issue at its root.

Getting Retention Right

Turnover can put kinks in even the healthiest team. Employee exits can hurt company morale, reduce your quality of work, and negatively impact your bottom line. Even if turnover is voluntary, it’s not uncommon for employees to leave in groups.

Each time an employee leaves, they take knowledge about your business with them. These can be small pieces of knowledge, like where the extra printer paper is. In other cases, they can be huge, operation-busting losses, like an engineering process or phone number for a top client.

While sometimes the cause is bad training, a less common cause can be overreliance. In no situation should your success hinge on a single employee staying with your company.

Even if you’re on great terms with that person, life happens. You never know when they’ll be injured or pulled away to care for a loved one.

How can you make it less likely an employee will leave? And before they do, how can you make sure their knowledge is recorded and available to others? Here’s what to do:

Train During Onboarding

A poorly trained employee is one who’s likely to leave. One reason is simply that the team member will feel less confident in her role. The other, more challenging one to address is that she will have fewer “hooks” in the form of relationships with other employees.

Be generous with your training period. Put time on the new team member’s calendar to train not just with her manager, but with other function leaders. Make sure employee-to-employee training is also part of your company’s onboarding process.

Asking senior employees to help new ones get started does more than make someone feel like part of the team. Plus, it can give those veteran employees insights into managing their direct reports.

Often, these people will pass on knowledge they don’t even think to record. Let them share it with one-on-one time with the new team member.

Write Everything Down

Once your more experienced employees have shared what they know with the newer ones, have them write it all down. There’s no good reason to keep institutional knowledge locked up with your current staff.

Corporate wikis, databases, and content management systems can all help you preserve institutional knowledge. Beware, however, that these tools are only as good as the time invested in them. The initial brain-dump can take dozens of hours, and the commitment must be ongoing.

With that said, knowledge management is worth it. Not only does it help retain institutional knowledge, but it acts as a great refresher. And if your processes are inefficient or out of date, recording them is a great way to identify those gaps.

Do this for every department. Ask functional leaders to list out processes and assign someone to build them out. Once everything is recorded, you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing turnover can’t take the knowledge away.

Preserve Knowledge Proactively

After filling your company’s knowledge library, update it frequently. Think of it like your resume: It’s much easier to update as you go, rather than having to remember everything that you’ve achieved on a moment’s notice.

Encourage employees to pay attention to changes at your company. Empower them to make updates as they see fit to your knowledge library. Even if the material they input is not quite right, remember: It can always be changed.

When editing, think “new”: Do you often sign with new clients and need to input their contact information? Are you a relatively new company still developing processes? Have you taken on a new project that impacts multiple areas of your company?

While you’re at it, consider appointing an “update chief,” whose job it is to keep the database current. Allow them to grant and restrict access permissions according to who has and needs the knowledge. Your update chief should also periodically cut material that is no longer relevant to your operations.

Have an Exit Plan

Even companies with high retention rates see employees come and go. Make sure that you have a plan to capture any knowledge an employee has before they leave. This can be accomplished during an exit interview, but ideally it should occur in the weeks before the employee moved on.

Once you learn of an employee’s plans to leave, consider who might be moving into their role. If it’s an internal candidate, work with the exiting employee to train their successor. If an external hire will replace them, ask your current employee to create a guide before they go.

If your company is expecting many retirements in the next few years, identify future leaders among your staff. Put together a mentorship program with the soon-to-retire people currently in those positions.

For every employee — even those not about to leave — identify a next-in-line. Life isn’t predictable, and the team will appreciate the certainty should something happen. Even if your backup talent never actually takes the role, they’ll perform better simply having seen their role from above.

Employees leave their employers for many different reasons. Some are positive, like retirement and new opportunities, while others may indicate a business problem. Whatever the reason, it’s important that their knowledge of your business does not walk out the door with them.

Get started before it’s too late. Retention is part of the puzzle, but a knowledge management system is a key backstop. Sooner or later, you will be glad you did.