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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Dow AgroSciences has been growing over the last few years and has hired hundreds of new employees. "So it is important that they should benefit from the knowledge of the older workers, too," she adds.

In response to these twin challenges, the company is pursuing a number of knowledge transfer initiatives in its R&D, operations and commercial functions. To ensure sharing of best practices across the company, these efforts will draw on Dow's experience of creating and sustaining communities of practice (CoPs) in its wider business activities.

[Related: Training Moves With the Times]

The plan is to use a technology platform such as the internal social networking site to connect the community. "We are conducting a pilot in R&D right now to determine if this type of platform will be effective," says Phillips.

Dow's current definition of "good" knowledge has three elements: one, that the particular case provides significant learning value; two, that knowing this information will help avoid past mistakes; and, three, that the example suits actual study (as opposed to just a review of an event or action) to provide insights on how to develop strategy. "That's the application piece which is so critical for learning — it's why studies in which you engage people can be so much more powerful than presentations or reports," she stresses.

Then there is the issue of knowledge transfer. Here the challenge is to ensure that effective learning will occur.

"We know that effective learning is largely on-the-job experience, application and practice. Ideally, we would engage experienced employees in transferring their knowledge directly through mentoring and coaching of employees who will succeed them, but other strategies can be used when that is difficult or not possible," notes Phillips. "For example, we might engage experienced Crop Protection employees in developing case studies focused on products they have been involved in developing. These case studies can then be utilized with less experienced employees to provide them with the opportunity to practice developing a strategy based on real examples. These sessions can be recorded to aid in training future case study facilitators when the keepers of the knowledge retire."

Another part of the strategy is a mature worker program. Eight months in development and launched in January, the program focuses on more effectively engaging mature workers with critical expertise by assisting them in exploring new career opportunities or innovative work arrangements that will motivate them to stay with Dow AgroSciences longer and share their knowledge. It's currently available to all U.S.-based mature workers; the company is exploring expansion outside the U.S. later this year.

"The next challenge is to develop success measures to ensure the best practices we are putting in place are actually adding value to the organization and encouraging knowledge capture and transfer to become a routine part of the way we do work. Our R&D director has already said that he wants it to be part of our culture. So now it's a case of showing people the value of doing this. It's a real change in mindset, but the response we have got from everyone is very positive," concludes Phillips.

An aging workforce also concerns BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany. By 2020, half of the 30,000 employees at its Ludwigshafen site will be over 50. The company has integrated demographic management into its overall personnel approach since 2006.

One aspect of this approach is the "Optimizing Production in Antwerp and Ludwigshafen into the 21st Century" (Opal 21) project. Knowledge management and transfer of expertise play important roles in this initiative for achieving long term benefits at both large integrated sites.

As part of Opal 21, each facility now has a plant trainer whose job is to create "learning projects" for every plant within the complex to ensure knowledge is transferred on a continuing basis. These projects consist of practice-based questions as well as tasks on the principles, operating instructions and activities in different parts of a plant (Figure 2). With the help of these learning projects and with support from the plant trainer, employees can qualify for new work assignments at the plant.

The company also has established an internal online business network. Using principles similar to those of popular social media, employees can build networks that extend beyond their own departments and activities, enabling them to exchange knowledge and work on joint projects. With just a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can find relevant experts within BASF and benefit from their expertise.

To prevent loss of valuable knowledge and experience, including familiarity with organizational processes as well as information about customers, suppliers and production processes, and to ensure knowledge transfer, BASF also organizes what it calls knowledge relays. In each of these, an expert who will be leaving and the person's successor meet with an external trainer. Together they identify and document the veteran's knowledge. This systematic approach shortens the amount of time needed for training, enables the successor to work independently and make decisions at an earlier point, and helps avoid unnecessary errors. Because every transition is different, the interviews are customized for each team.

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