Knowledge Retention: Beyond Guidelines and Rhetoric

Shortly after my mom turned 50, she decided to retire. Soon after that, I began to notice oddities in our conversations. She would tell me things that didn’t make sense. When I pressed her for context, she seemed disoriented. She had been watching a lot of TV programmes, and I wondered if her reality had somehow been distorted because of that. It was worrying. We decided that she should go back to work. She did, and these days conversations tend to be about her peeves with her colleagues or customers. In other words, things are back to normal. 

Having witnessed firsthand how detrimental an unproductive retirement can be to a person’s mental well being, I am all for the guidelines released by the Singapore Tripartism Forum. These guidelines pertain to the reemploying of workers beyond the statutory retirement age of 62 to age 67, from the current 65. The intention underpinning these guidelines is a positive one. “As Singapore’s population and workforce rapidly ages, there is an urgent need to tap into the valuable skills and experience of older employees.” The Singapore Public Service, one of the biggest employers here, will lead by example by adopting those guidelines beginning 1 January 2015. More will surely follow.

From a knowledge management perspective, however, the guidelines alone are not enough. Without concerted effort to retain or transfer the skills and experience of older employees, the loss of those valuable knowledge is inevitable. It may be postponed by a few years but it is bound to happen.


Take Richard for example. Richard worked for a government-linked, public listed company in Singapore. When we met him two years, he was already 67 – well past the recommended reemployment age ceiling then. He had been with his company since its early days and he had amassed a wealth of operational knowledge. He was anxious that no plans had been put in place to retain what he knew, but no one else in the company seemed to share his anxiety. He was keen to establish a knowledge retention programme that would bring together experienced and young engineers, but he was unable to convince his company to put resources into it. The company’s strategy was simply to extend his re-employment contract. Later that same year, the company suffered a major, high profile setback due in no small part to their failure to retain the knowledge and experience of engineers like Richard.

About five years ago, we were tasked to review KM practices at a statutory board that offers a public service. One of our findings was that due to the way work was organised, knowledge tended to be held by individuals. The risk of knowledge loss was high; when people leave, the knowledge they possess may leave with them. In one particular instance, we traced the possessor of a high value knowledge asset to one individual (let’s call him Bob). When we proposed doing a knowledge retention exercise with Bob, we were informed that Bob had only a few days left before retirement. He was in the process of negotiating reemployment, but the uncertainty of the situation resulted in the project moving on without addressing the issue.

In 2005, in reviewing the knowledge risks for another statutory board in the engineering construction and service industry, we discovered that critical knowledge were held by a group of senior people who had been with the board for many years and had been part of its numerous expansions over those years. The thing was, this group of people was fast approaching retirement at about the same time. To compound the matter, they were still heavily engaged in projects right up to the last minute. Naturally, knowledge retention could not be a priority for them.

Many companies miss the opportunity to retain the skills and experience of their older employees, which is why outliers like Shell’s ROCK (Retention Of Critical Knowledge) programme is often studied, referenced and admired. Retiring staff and the criticalness of their knowledge and experience to the business are identified a few years ahead of their retirement, and systematic processes are in place to retain at least some of those knowledge and experience. A brief overview of ROCK is shared by Shell’s Chief Human Resources Officer here and in greater detail by Carla Newman during our 2013 Roundtable session here.

Carla’s presentation hints at the amount of work and indeed expertise needed to retain knowledge and experience. Most companies choose to extend reemployment contracts instead. However, there are a few, like IE Singapore and Keppel FELS, who have already begun to tackle their knowledge retention challenges in a serious way. Surely more will follow?

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