Retirement: Companies Keep Know-how in Place

Some companies are taking proactive steps to retain knowledge.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Generations@Work grew out of a strategic analytical process that started in 2004 to identify future needs. One result of this was a so-called demographic map, a tool that considers external demographic conditions such as life expectancy and age structure of the general population near a site, together with internal conditions such as age structure and composition of the site's workforce. By combining both factors, BASF can establish a profile of an individual site to determine need for further action.

"We developed concepts on the topic 'transfer of knowledge,' for instance, the early succession plan and the systematic transfer of knowledge. The goal is that the knowledge of a retiring employee will be passed on to his follower in a specific and efficient way. Where experts or managers change position, there will be a moderated knowledge hand-over. A moderator interviews both sides to develop a detailed action plan for further adjustment of the new job," adds Hansen.

Informal networks play an important part in efficient knowledge exchange at the company. New employees often get a mentor, who helps with the adjustment to the new job and in developing a personal network. A wide range of seminars helps people broaden contacts beyond their own department by making it easier to get in touch with staff responsible for different topics.

Figure 2. Community spirit: BASF has established a
centralized technical community to simplify information
Source: BASF.

BASF also relies on web-based education tools. It has established an online centralized technical community to ease information exchange (Figure 2). For example, a special search engine simplifies pinpointing experts in a particular field. A global discussion forum designed to help find solutions to specific problems has 2,000 members from more than 100 of the company's sites worldwide. Questions generally are answered within a few hours. "Furthermore, the technical community offers a modular qualification course for all employees with technical tasks in Europe, the so-called Technical Academy," adds Hansen.

At many companies today's business conditions undoubtedly hamper substantive efforts on training. However, saving there doesn't make sense, warns Chris Horton, director and vice president of plastics manufacturer LINPAC, Knottingley, U.K. (For more on this issue, see the June 2009 Editor's column.)

Some of Britain's biggest employers are on the brink of a crisis caused by aging workforce, he noted at the inaugural conference of the National Skills Academy Process Industries (NSAPI) on May 5, in York, U.K.. These include chemical, pharmaceutical and polymer companies — which typically have 40% of their work force aged 45 and over, he said.

"Employers must continue to train their workforce despite the current economic pressures. As employers, we must take an active lead in ensuring we manage the skills agenda and don't just sit back and let the crisis happen," he cautioned.

Services in Transition
At the same time, however, the state of the market is changing the demands being made on companies that provide training.

"We've done a full revitalization of our training portfolio, given the current economic climate and the reluctance of customers to travel. So the focus is very much now on the customer location," says Vikas Dhole, vice president of engineering and product management for AspenTech, Burlington, Mass.

Gone are the one- or two-day chunks of traditional training at an Aspen center, to be replaced with one- or two-hour modules for on-site use.

The company did a number of test runs with new modular courses in December and by July hopes to start unveiling modular packages of its flagship simulation products.

"These start with E&C [engineering and construction], refining and chemicals. We are finding that customers are demanding more and more problem-solving skills — so we are bridging a gap that in the old days was filled by in-house training and mentoring," notes Dhole. "So far the feedback has been extremely positive, but it is a culture change and it will take time to be accepted."

In another sign of the times, AspenTech holds at least one web seminar every month; popular topics routinely attract global audiences of 200 or more. Over the last two years more than 12,000 people have registered to take part.

The company has noticed a number of demographic issues at its customers. "In the current economic climate, people in E&C have stopped taking early retirement. These companies are also suffering from the downturn in investment in the 1990s when the oil price was very low and few people were hired — so that today they have a lot of experienced people in the 45-plus age group, with a small peak in the 25–30 age range. But it is the unhealthy dip in the 30–45 age range that concerns them a lot," says Sanjeev Mullick, director of product marketing.
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