Retirement Casts a Long Shadow

April 23, 2013
Companies focus on retaining and disseminating expertise of veteran engineers.

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 (www.chemicalprocessing.com/articles/2011/survey-baby-boomer-retirement/). 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.


Figure 1. About two-thirds of the education at Air Products' corporate university comes from informal learning techniques. Source: Air Products.

"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.

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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.

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.

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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.


Figure 2. Opal 21 training units include practice-based questions and tasks related to an individual plant within an integrated complex. Source: BASF.

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.FOCUSING ON UNIQUE CONTENTThe wave of forthcoming retirements was a major driver for establishing the Center for Operator Performance (COP) in 2007. "Initially none of us knew what knowledge management was all about, but we chose to go down the procedures route because we felt it would be easier to get a direction," explains David A. Strobhar, chief human factors engineer at Beville Engineering in Dayton, Ohio, and a guiding light behind the Dayton-based center. "So that's why we have been working on a semantic procedure analyzer (SPA)," he adds.

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Much of the development work for the SPA has come from COP research into modularizing emergency procedures. This pointed up the need to make updating and modifying existing procedures easier. It also found that about 80% of the material in procedures is duplication. "This means that the amount of information that really needs to be updated/current is only around 20% of the total volume of the procedures. For example, a unit that has 100 pages of procedures may really only have 20 pages of unique information. Put those 20 pages in a database that can be accessed by each procedure that needs the procedure step(s) and the update processing just became significantly easier," says Strobhar.

To highlight the importance of this, he cites the case of a COP member company that found variations that shouldn't exist in certain procedures. One, for example, required four steps to shut down a heater while another called for five. "Which one is accurate? From a legal standpoint you now have inconsistencies. If one step in a procedure has been changed, that step should be changed everywhere… there are huge corporate risk implications if this isn't done."

The SPA software also has the capability to learn to adapt over time so that fewer corrections need to be made.

The final version of the software will be available online to COP member companies by the end of the year, he hopes.

"Once we have that complete, we will move into our next steps in knowledge management, which will potentially use the storytelling technique. Gary Klein, author of 'Sources of Power' and an expert in decision-making, says the key to learning is from real-life lessons and stories. They are more important than retelling the simple physics behind why a certain decision was taken. I see this as a real potential area of use. Creating a protocol for capturing this event knowledge will be a key area," Strobhar concludes.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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