Battling the Coming IT Brain Drain

By Joan Indiana Rigdon with commentary by Cathy Sunshine

Wake up! It’s time for your Baby Boomer employees to start retiring. Even if they plan to stay on, a weak economy might inspire your CEO to offer them early retirement. When they walk out the door, will they take your IT department’s precious institutional knowledge with them?

That is a scenario that Jeanie Engle works hard to avoid. Engle is Chief Knowledge Officer of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where she served as CIO from 2000 to 2006. In her new role, one of Engle’s primary tasks is to do battle against the coming brain drain.

There are two kinds of knowledge to guard: explicit, which can be written down, and tacit, which resides in people’s heads. “You need both,” Engle says.

CIOs can use a good information management architecture to handle the explicit knowledge. But extracting and passing on tacit knowledge is much a more challenging task, because it’s not obvious who knows what, which information really needs to stay with the organization, and how you get a whole department to assimilate some of the more important tidbits, like which individual relationships to leverage for which task.

To keep institutional knowledge within the institution, CIOs must first identify their key knowledge workers. “This is always difficult,” Engle says. “You don’t want to interview everybody because not everybody in an organization has unique knowledge that you need to capture. You’re looking for that subject matter expert, the one who’s recognized as the guru. That’s typically five or ten percent of workforce.”

Once you know who these “knowledge gurus” are, you can use multiple methods to extract what they know. One of the most straightforward methods is the interview.

In 2010, for instance, NASA is retiring its space shuttle program, which launched its first mission in 1981. After identifying about 20 key workers who had made critical contributions throughout the life of the program, Engle helped craft 10 questions for them around the topics of decision making, risk management and problem solving. “We’re extracting out of there what we hope are a series of lessons,” she says.

In addition to interviews, Engle also hopes knowledge will be transferred to the next generation through mentoring programs, both formal and informal. At the Johnson Space Center, there’s a formal program to pair new recruits with more seasoned workers. Engle estimates that out of 3,000 civil servants, about 150 workers are currently in the program.

Cathy Sunshine, owner of Sunshine Consultancy, a Denver firm that specializes in organizational development, advises having seasoned workers give anecdotal presentations to their departments and especially their potential successors. “I would direct them to tell stories of what’s gone on in the last two years and how they reached the conclusions they reached,” she says, since anecdotes are much more memorable than bullet points.

For the future, NASA is looking at using social networking software, something along the lines of Facebook, to set up a community that is only open to NASA and its contractors. A technology like that would readily identify each worker’s area of expertise and make it easier for people to regularly mine each other for information. “We are looking at how you bring that in to the agency as a whole,” Engle says.

The good news is, even after your Boomers leave you, you can continue to try to transfer their expertise back into the organization by hiring them as consultants. In 2004, when NASA set plans for Constellation, a mission to return astronauts to the moon, 32 years had passed since the last Apollo mission. So NASA brought back its graybeards to develop course material on each and every Apollo mission, and to teach that course to members of the new Constellation mission.

If your organization doesn’t have a large budget for hiring consultants, there are more informal ways to tap their brains. “We do bring back quite a few of our former colleagues for brownbag lunches and seminars,” Engle says. For a visit of an hour or two, these retirees aren’t asking for pay. “It’s amazing how much these individuals want to share,” she says.

CIO Online, 2009.