Safeguarding Knowledge

Retirement represents the loss of a worker with the skills needed to perform a specific job. It may also represent the loss of crucial knowledge whose value to the organization extends far beyond the worker’s individual position.

Freightliner, a large truck manufacturer based in Portland, Oregon, has anticipated this dual risk. It set about assessing the extent and severity of the risk, focusing on employees who were key knowledge holders. The challenge was to identify these workers as a subset of the workforce; to segment them based on whether their knowledge was held by them alone, by a few employees, or by many employees; and to transfer their knowledge so that it wouldn’t be lost to the organization when they retired.

Using an in-depth survey of 5,000 employees, Freightliner classified employees by the type of knowledge they had. Across the company, about 20% of the population emerged as “key knowledge holders,” 9% as “unique key knowledge holders,” and 3% as “at-risk, unique key knowledge holders” (those who were eligible to retire within five years). The risk posed by the departure of this latter group varied significantly among different functions. Segmenting this crucial human resource by function helped the company set up targeted knowledge management systems, tandem staffing arrangements, job rotations, and other means to capture what these people knew before they left the company.

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