brain drain

How to Combat Corporate Brain Drain

October 16, 2019 by Milton Herman

5 min read

The corporate brain drain problem is tied to the pending retirement of the baby boomer generation. This generation of Americans holds approximately 29% of all jobs, and 56% hold leadership positions, according to academic data. But the problem isn’t exclusive to baby boomers and soon-to-be retirees.

Brain drain affects various industries and roles such as sales, tech, restaurants, federal government, emergency medical services, and more. The problem has been amplified by millennials who are forced to job hop because of a lack of internal opportunities.

It doesn’t stop there.

  • NASA faced their own brain drain problem when they began preparing for a mission to Mars in 2004.
  • British Petroleum (BP) had their own knowledge loss scenario in 2006. Many blame the mass retirements of senior corrosion engineers for the largest-ever oil spill on Alaska’s North Slope.
  • The current White House administration office shrunk by a third in 2018 with little if any formal knowledge transfers.

Here’s why this problem is so prevalent and how organizations can correct it.

The Knowledge Transfer Challenge

When an employee departs, the protocol is to conduct a knowledge transfer to their replacement or another employee. This usually consists of a series of meetings and a mass forwarding of emails and files.

But does anyone know how to transfer all the knowledge required for their job? The process varies depending on position, industry, remote vs. co-located team and time availability. Current software tools such as cloud storage, project management, chat & email, and wikis are all limited in one way or another.

The DocOps system and software addresses these challenges via:

Roundtable document reviews - There’s value in reading in multiple people on a job knowledge transfer. A manager, cross-functional team members or aspiring junior-level teammates not only benefit from reviewing this information but can add value through insight or thought-provoking questions.

Document management - A framework for job transfers is created when managers have their team write up knowledge such as organizational direction, project ideas, lessons and processes.

Writing (and reading) culture - This system requires the adoption of a writing culture. A key difference for innovative and high-functioning companies is a system where documents must be read and reviewed, this prevents stale and outdated information. Company knowledge and personal insight is the only requirement for attending these reviews.

This system requires a new way of thinking, which means culture change. There are several factors for making this work.

Transparency & Communication - Culture change has little chance of being effective if it’s distributed downward without preemptive communication and feedback. The document reviews listed above help with information distribution.

Alignment - A lack of alignment occurs if the culture direction is coming from the CEO and takes the HR department by surprise (or vice versa). Widespread culture change requires a collective effort with shared buy-in.

Pilot Group or Testing - Implementing a culture change program in phases or within small teams first. This helps ease workers into new routines and facilitates feedback gathering so kinks can be fixed.

Culture Change Examples

It’s well-documented through surveys and corporate anecdotes that culture change is hard and fails more often than not. The diverse opinions and personalities within companies can lead to resistance and confusion.

There are two important factors when it comes to culture change.

  • Changing what people do, rather than how they think
  • Implementing employee ownership

Consider these two examples.

NUMMI - In 1983, GMC and Toyota opened New United Motor Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI), a joint auto plant in Fremont, California. Previously, the plant was one of GMC’s worst. Absenteeism was frequently 20% or more, other issues included wildcat strikes (non-union based) and even sabotage. The NUMMI project brought in Japanese trainers from Toyota and their contrasting program. The new system flipped production quality within one year.

One key takeaway from this culture shift was the implementation of a stop-the-line system. Every employee was given the authority to “stop the line” if they encountered anything that prevented them from doing their job. The team leader was required to provide assistance within a set time limit. This was a hefty goal with such a large workforce, but it proved to help employees with problem solving and autonomy.

Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella - Microsoft was a divisive company in the 2000s where product teams sparred over influence and notoriety. This led to the shelving of future-forward products and notorious product flops. In just a few years under Nadella’s direction, the company is on the right path. The reason is the focus on usage, instead of revenue. This has changed developer and manager behavior allowing them to build products that people enjoy and meet users where they are, similar to the thinking of a startup. This shift in management changed allowed developers to work on projects without considering the impact on Windows, so it changed what they do and empowered them to do more.

78% of top HR and IT executives at mid- to large-sized US-based companies said the threat of losing business-critical expertise has increased over the past five years. The problem will continue and is not exclusive to any one group or industry. Prevent brain drain by implementing a writing and reading culture which facilitates a culture shift.

Create knowledge not excuses. Expect success with Topple.

Topple provides tools that help teams create and use documents to communicate, remember, and thrive.