Retirement Casts a Long Shadow

Companies focus on retaining and disseminating expertise of veteran engineers.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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With a substantial portion of their engineers and operators nearing retirement age, many chemical companies face the risk of losing crucial know-how as experienced staff leave. Indeed, in a fairly recent CP online poll, nearly half of the respondents said that retirement of baby boomers would significantly affect their sites ( Some companies are hoping to defuse this demographic time bomb through a variety of initiatives for capturing and transfering older workers' knowledge and experience.

For instance, Air Products, Allentown, Pa., is over four years into developing its procedures for knowledge retention and transfer.

"Today we are much more confident that we have effective processes and tools in place to facilitate knowledge transfer, and there is a mindset in the company culture towards knowledge transfer," says Vince Grassi, director of global learning, employee development, diversity and inclusion. "From my perspective, I can see the tools we are deploying beginning to deliver," he adds.

The combination of four macro trends is helping Air Products with these efforts, notes Grassi.

First, is the huge improvement in information technology and the internet as their tools become faster and more seamless. Second, is globalization, which has driven the need for high-quality, rapid intracompany information flow.

Third, the company's ability to provide education has improved hugely. "Our corporate university has 11 colleges to provide a wide range of development opportunities beyond traditional training to capture informal learning, best practices, and the exchange of knowledge, know-how, and experience for all aspects of the company's business and operations. So the talent we are developing through education has improved as we develop our people," he notes.

Last, is the latest generation of engineering graduates' skills to assimilate and use knowledge. As an adjunct professor of chemical engineering at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., Grassi sees these people first hand and describes them as very sharp and well able to address the company's present and future global engineering challenges.

[Related: Operator Training Gains Ground]

While these trends have helped, the central challenge always has been how to physically capture and retain important knowledge.

"Engineers, in particular, think of knowledge transfer in terms of explicit knowledge — process flow diagrams, engineering standards and so forth. But 80% of the critical engineering knowledge is actually tacit knowledge. It is the insight as to why we did it that way, or the undocumented way we thought through the solution. We must transfer tacit knowledge using tacit methods," he says.

As a result, over two-thirds of the education in the company's corporate university is focused on informal learning techniques such as communities of practice, two-in-the-box (i.e., working side-by-side), after-action reviews or storytelling (Figure 1). After-action reviews, in particular, are proving very good tools for transfering tacit knowledge.

Grassi explains: "We have an established structure and procedure. We have created an online wiki workbook. The workbook contains tools, such as those mentioned above, and a process to accomplish knowledge transfer. This is set up as a wiki so that the 11 college knowledge managers within our corporate university can add to it as they learn how to do things better. Some tools are very obvious, for example there are after-action reviews to focus on the lessons learned. But the tool is structured to simplify this. Also it focuses on the tacit knowledge — the 80% of knowledge that emerges in discussions. The rest generally emerges as a small number of bullet points that simply have to be learned."

Air Products now is working toward two goals: the next step and the grand leap. The first essentially relates to refining existing procedures — using the process and tools for knowledge transfer throughout the enterprise, while improving the methods and documenting them in the wiki.

The grand leap involves moving to a culture of knowledge sharing and transfer within Air Products. "I see this following the progression of the safety culture in the chemical industry. Identifying the best ways to transfer knowledge, continual practice by using the methods, and documenting these into a framework that is easy to follow and can be used by everyone. So long-term we will have a knowledge transfer culture in the same way that we have a safety culture now," he concludes.

Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, Ind., which focuses on two business platforms: crop protection, and seeds, traits and oils, faces a significant potential know-how loss. "Forty to fifty percent of our experienced staff within these platforms will become eligible for retirement over the next 4–5 years — so a lot of knowledge could very soon walk straight out of the door," explains Jeannie Phillips, R&D senior project manager. Phillips also is involved in mature worker engagement (i.e., efforts to retain veterans and foster their sharing of expertise), knowledge transfer and other aspects of accelerated development for R&D personnel.

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