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How To Pick the Brains of Your Retiring Baby Boomers

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(Previously posted on

A consultant from the late firm RWD Technologies, LLC did some important brain-picking on an assembly line at Chrysler in Michigan: she noticed the tub where body frame primer sprayers were not timed to shut off simultaneously and some over-sprayed. The paint shop assembly line worker had also noticed the glitch. They collectively went to IT robotics and reported their observation. No, said IT, everything was working correctly. But it wasn’t.

To get to the bottom of the issue they had to talk with the robotics manufacturer and the programmer for the equipment. Sure enough, there was an error in the software which caused the primer body frame sprayers to stay on after the frame painting was finished and valves were not all in sync. After the program corrections were made, Chrysler saw a large savings in wasted paint, the line worker received a financial reward and the consultant received a brain-picker award.

If you are a business owner or executive, are you — like the RWD consultant — mining your employees for nuggets of critical knowledge? What about the baby boomers in your company, who may take critical knowledge about your business with them upon retirement?

As discussed in last month’s post, “A ‘Brain Dump’ Before the Boomer Retiree ‘Brain Drain,’” many soon-to-retire baby boomers may have critical knowledge about your business and may not even know they know it. Employers have yet to recognize how much knowledge will be lost with retiring baby boomers, and if they don’t recognize this, no solutions for this problem will be developed.

Last month’s article cited examples of knowledge nuggets and the need for some boomer brain-picking. One reader emailed wanting to know what I meant by “brain-picking.” It is exactly that: entering a discussion with the intention of learning something new. A process that is an art of communications.

This process helped me climb the corporate ladder quickly, and helped me to earn both financial and professional rewards. As I learned more about how to go about the process, I became more comfortable with my dialog and learned the right questions to ask. It became a habit by choice.

The rewards of mining nuggets of knowledge from baby boomers can be as small as spotting a step left out of a million-dollar process, or — as shown in the story about Chrysler and the RWD consultant — the nuggets can be as large as knowledge of a one-of-a-kind system.

A Process to pick boomer brains

Human resources professionals can and should get their baby boomer analysis and brain-picking moved up on the corporate agenda, but there is no guarantee that corrective action will be the right action, or that any action will be taken soon enough.

1. Treat it as an opportunity

Employers must realize the wave of retiring baby boomers is a challenge but not necessarily a problem. If you are downsizing and using more technology to replace repetitive tasks, get your boomers involved — even if they may be downsized as a result.

2. Make it attractive for boomers to participate

Show your appreciation for the accumulated knowledge they have obtained. Show them you are not stealing the information they may hold, but want it to benefit them and those who will follow.

3. Be transparent

If the results do mean a downsizing, don’t hide the fact and spring it on your participating boomers at the last moment. Sit down with them and outline an exit plan, extended benefits, buyout options, outplacement, etc. Most boomers intuitively know the shelf life of the knowledge they hold in their heads, especially if they have kept pace with the use of technology and know the rhetoric surrounding data analysis to improve processes.

Remember, boomers may be more valuable on the open market, may be at the top of their pay scale or may already be looking for more flexible work opportunities. In fact, many may already be moonlighting in preparation for a change. Most boomers would prefer not to tip over the apple cart, staying with their current employer until retirement, but lately many are more in touch with the realities of labor market changes than you might think.

4. Appraise them

One way you can hone in on the information boomers might have is to ask them to take an assessment like the Pearson Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA). The results will immediately tell companies how valuable this person may be.

More critical thinkers in an organization increases the odds for success, according to most economists and thought leaders. The more adept an employee is at thinking critically, the better he or she may be to lead, teach, collaborate and find innovation among their peers.

5. Transfer knowledge through collaboration

If an employee appears anxious to find a path to fulfill his or her passion, it’s likely you need to extract as much knowledge as you can before they leave. Internal collaboration tools can help make your boomers the go-to people in your organization. The interactions of the Q&A process between learners (GenXers and Millennials) is captured and can be repurposed later. Make it a game. Both sides get points for offering a question and getting an understandable response within a certain time period. Help the younger employees feel good about using this method to get quick answers and reward those who maximize the resource.

6. Capture the knowledge

Create a basic list of questions to ask and build upon it. As early as 2007, I used a technology developed by RWD Technologies called uPerform. The system was originally developed and widely used for SAP training and is now owned and perfected by ANCILE Solutions. At that time I adapted the platform to integrate with a learning management system for the precise purpose of knowledge capture for a large Virginia-based firm with many divisions of global government contractors with many independent contractors.

The objective was to get the senior staff and independents to use uPerform to store and share knowledge of projects to repurpose and use for developing younger talent and expanding contracts with government agencies. According to the CLO at the time, Alan Malinchak, it was a great success. Since then, uPerform has become much better and other similar technology vendors provide a wide array of solutions.

The bottom line:

Talk is cheap — action is necessary, or else a tsunami will hit your firm with wave after wave after wave of market or competitor interruptions. Many will not withstand the pressures of change and loss of baby boomers’ knowledge nuggets because they started too late.

No one method fits all, but one can tweak the approach to one’s own needs. There is no alchemy to create the gold nuggets — you have to go out and find the stuff. This problem will only become greater as global conditions continue to shrink the labor pool and educated talent.

When you see the media’s attention devoted to boomer retirement as if it were an epidemic, you will then know it has the full attention of owners and executives. For far too many, it will be an immediate shock to how business is conducted, because few businesses below the Fortune 500 are addressing it right now.

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