With retirements, layoffs, and buyouts looming large for the Baby Boomer generation, many executives must be quite concerned about what will be the impact on their organizations. It’s like watching your hard drive walk out the door and knowing you have no backup. ASTD’s Learning Executives Briefing highlights this concern in the August issue. In an interview with Linda Osgood of the U.S. General Services Administration, she said:

“…my biggest concern is the knowledge transfer between the new people and those who are going out the door. Most of our staff is either under the age of 28 or over the age of 55. So we have a large knowledge gap. We need to capture the legacy of the people who are leaving. How do we avoid the mistakes? How do we avoid going back to ways or methods that were not successful for us?”

Knowledge management systems were supposed to address this concern. The thinking was that if we could just get everyone, especially those people who are planning to leave the organization soon, to put key information into a database, we can archive all of that knowledge and make it accessible to everyone else in the organization now and in the future. While I think there is value in having this kind of repository of information, as an active learning tool, these systems fall short. Managers have little incentive to pass on everything they know to the next generation of employees, especially if they are close to walking out the door. And new employees have little incentive to consider what the people before them have done before they show-off what they know for their bosses. Also, it’s not the way many people think and work. They might talk to someone informally about a work problem, but they are not going to use a database to find a solution. A knowledge management system is one of those things that makes perfect sense on paper (or computer) but doesn’t work as well as we had hoped in practice. Successful organizations still rely on the memory, thinking processes, and problem-solving capabilities of experienced people.