Monday, 16 May 2016

The false allure of alumni networks in knowledge retention

When faced with a knowledge retention challenge, it seems an obvious idea to set up an alumni network of retirees so their knowledge can still be accessed. But is this always such a good plan?

Image from wikimedia commons
The allure of the alumni network is that it seems to avoid the knowledge retention issue. If critical knowledge is still held by the alumni, then by networking them (perhaps by including them in the skills directory, or letting them retain membership of the relevant communities of practice) you still have access to the source of knowledge. If someone in the organisation needs knowledge, the knowledgeable alumnus remains reachable.

However there are a number of drawbacks with this model, which you need to think through carefully.

  • If the alumnus has retired, then they are no longer active in their domain. Their memory will begin to fade, often quite quickly. The human brain is a poor long-term knowledge store (see this blog post on the forgetting curve). Over time the details begin to disappear, then the main points become re-invented and become false knowledge (see also this post). 
  • Unless they still have complete access to the company system, the alumnus will no longer have access to the files and documents they would have used to jog their memory. One would hope that the alumni don’t still have all their private collection of company files on their laptop, and it was this private stash that they used to refer to. Without it, they are not so useful.
  • If the alumnus has retired, then they begin to lose their “relationship capital”. People don’t know, them, they fall out of the “circle of discussion” which is closely linked to the “circle of trust”.
  • Once the alumnus has retired, their knowledge begins to go out of date. It’s a short step from “You shouldn't do it like that for the following valid reasons” to “In my day we never did it like that”.
  • You lose the face-to-face aspects of knowledge transfer, such as coaching and mentoring.
  • You are only postponing the problem for a few years. After a while he retirees will lose interest, and you are putting a big chunk of your KM strategy in the hands of people who one day will choose to go and play golf instead.
  • If the alumnus is available for rehire as a consultant, then you immediately introduce money onto the equation, and set up a barrier to wider knowledge retention. As Dave DeLong points out in his excellent book “Lost Knowledge”; 

This (using retirees as consultants) may seem like the most practical approach, but it can also undermine knowledge transfer practices among older employees who know their expertise is their ticket to a comfortable consulting relationship after they retire. When older employees are routinely hired back as contractors, they have much less incentive to share their knowledge with others before retiring. “Your knowledge is your security here” said a retired research scientist who had returned as a consultant. “If you didn't still have the knowledge, they wouldn't want you back”.

Because of these pitfalls, the Alumni model should not be an alternative to a comprehensive Knowledge Retention and Transfer strategy. At the best, it can be seen as a back-stop. At the worst (the final bullet point above) it can actually undermine other retention efforts. 

There are however a couple of circumstances where is it can add value. I can think of two:
  • When the knowledge is deeply historical, there is no other means to retain it, and nobody to transfer it to. The type example of this is NASA's Oral History project where NASA retirees have been interviewed to develop an oral history of the major events in the organisation's history.
  • When the activity is being outsourced. Here the knowledge will not be retained in-house, but the company will still want access to the services of skilled and knowledgeable people with an insider view of the organisation. A type example of this was when Knoco was set up in 1999. BP were winding down their KM program, and wanted access to people with knowledge and experience in oil-sector KM. The core of the KM team left to form Knoco, BP granted us intellectual property rights to the knowledge we had developed, and we provided services back to BP right up until the recent oil price crash. As alumni, we understand the context of the organisation, and as active consultants can also bring new experiences and new developments back to the organisation.

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