Knowledge retention: What practitioners need to know
Posted Feb 1, 2011

With increasingly competitive environments and struggling economies, today’s organizations are trying to stay afloat in rough waters. Internal and external pressures are placing demands on organizations that are affecting their competitive edge. Those organizations that are “continuously learning,” adaptive and agile will be the most likely to survive. Part of reaching that goal is based on harnessing and leveraging the human capital in the organization. That is where knowledge retention and transfer techniques can be used to capture, share, apply, leverage and possibly create knowledge before employees leave the organization, or to onboard new employees to quickly get them up to speed.

Organizations that are embracing knowledge retention activities are gaining a competitive advantage.

For example, according to the 2010 APQC Knowledge Management Conference, Pfizer boosted efficiency by 15 percent with an easy-to-use, shared note-taking program. Organizations need to be concerned about knowledge retention. For example, about 90 percent of the U.S. government’s 8,000 top-ranking senior executives are eligible for retirement, according to an April 21, 2010, article in The Washington Post. Organizations with management leadership that is weaving knowledge retention within its succession planning, work force development and human capital strategies should fare well in the future. Strong managerial leadership is positively correlated to the retention of key people, based on Nick Bontis and Alexander Serenko’s work in Canada.

No strategy, no budget

Without strong leadership and a knowledge retention program, the enterprise will sub-optimize and be vulnerable to potential knowledge loss, such as with the U.S. nuclear energy industry. With renewed excitement in nuclear energy in the United States after years of disinterest, many individuals who possess knowledge of the construction, operations and maintenance of nuclear power plants are very senior and nearing retirement. With the help of the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, interest is focused on filling those knowledge gaps through knowledge transfer and retention programs.

Surprisingly, few organizations seem to have a formal knowledge retention (KR) strategy or even a KR standard operating procedure (SOP). According to a January 2009 Institute for Corporate Productivity report on knowledge retention, in which more than 420 organizations responded, about 77 percent indicated they don’t have an owner for KR initiatives, and about 68 percent said they have no budget or resources earmarked for knowledge retention activities in their organizations. Some organizations—like NASA, through its Lessons Learned Process Procedure & Guidelines NPG 7120.6; John Deere, through its Retention of Critical Knowledge (ROCK) process; and some of the nuclear energy companies through a mandated need for knowledge retention and transfer SOPs—have recognized the importance of engaging in those activities and having a formal process established. However, for the bulk of organizations worldwide, a black hole exists in which there is little recognition for having a formal KR strategy and associated processes for their organization.

What can be done?

A number of easy-to-accomplish knowledge retention techniques can be applied throughout an organization. However, an overarching KR strategy and related processes with proper governance are needed to be effective. And waiting to conduct exit interviews two weeks before an employee is leaving the organization is not extremely fruitful. Rather, knowledge retention processes should be applied from day one of the employee’s employment life span with the organization.

My book, Knowledge Retention: Strategies and Solutions (Taylor & Francis, 2009), addresses the importance of having four key pillars underlying a knowledge retention strategy:

KR approaches

The knowledge retention strategy should be part of a comprehensive knowledge management (KM) plan, which in turn is a subset of the overarching human capital strategy of the organization. Aside from the knowledge management pillar, the human capital strategy should also have its foundations in competency management (what competencies do you need in the organization’s work force of the future?), performance management (what are the ways to reward or provide disincentives if not achieving those desired competencies and proficiencies?), and change management (who are the change agents and what are the change management processes needed to build and nurture a knowledge sharing culture?).

Once a strategy is developed, a KR implementation plan and SOP can be created and institutionalized throughout the organization. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA,, for example, has been actively engaged in knowledge retention throughout the years and has the following KR process (

Knowledge retention approaches run the gamut from easy-to-use, low-cost approaches to more sophisticated, pricey techniques. A variety of KR approaches include the following (

Before deciding which knowledge retention technique can best mitigate knowledge loss, the organization should determine what is the critical “at risk” knowledge, based on the future strategic mission of the organization, whether there are backup experts in place, and what is the knowledge attrition profile of the organization.

Litmus test

How do you know if you’re in trouble?

I have developed a KM/KR Quick Litmus Test. Check the ones that apply to your organization:

Organizational learning

If you marked six to nine of those items, you are in great need of knowledge retention and transfer activities. If you checked four or five items, you could take advantage of knowledge retention and transfer techniques. If you marked three or fewer, you still might need a little extra help in the KR area, but perhaps not as much as the others.

Essentially, knowledge retention and transfer should lead to organizational learning, which should be part of the fabric of the organization. Important aspects of the organizational learning formula are:

Be proactive

The message is clear: Organizations must be proactive in developing, applying and institutionalizing knowledge retention and transfer activities to be competitive in the years ahead. According to a June 2009 report, “Leveraging HR and KM in a Challenging Economy,” by the Society for Human Resource Management, those organizations that have embraced and optimized knowledge management practices as part of their business strategy are the leaders in their field and have gained a competitive advantage over their peers. Developing a KR strategy and associated processes are critical components in dealing with potential knowledge loss. Start now before it’s too late!