Mind the Talent Gaps. Image by limaoscarjuliet on flickr.

People have been predicting boomer brain drain for years. In 2008, a SHRM / AARP study warned about the impending brain drain. Yet, companies haven’t been too worried, partially because the economy has made it impossible for people to leave.

It might be time for that relaxed attitude to change.

Recently, one of my clients was surprised to learn that 28% of their workforce would be eligible to walk out the door with full benefits within the next two years. That’s a lot of people and a lot of institutional knowledge. With the market in recovery, they decided it was time to act.

If your company is in a similar position, here are some points to consider.

Knowledge Is Important…

Every organization has internal experts in programming languages, systems, product lines, business units, and so on. What SMEs know they know and can teach others is important. But what’s more important is their tacit knowledge: all of those conclusions, impressions, tricks, and techniques they’ve learned over the years and adopted into their work so they don’t even pay attention to them anymore.

…Capabilities Are Also Important

Knowledge about Java or the insurance business is useless if you can’t apply it on the job. This is the standard ivory tower predicament: an academic might know a lot about marketing, but could she successfully market a new product?

Much of what we know is learned on the job and fine-tuned through experience. These practical abilities, unfortunately, are hard to teach since they’re so context-specific. Training classes won’t cut it. To gain capabilities, people need on-the-job mentoring from people in the know.

Networks Trump Everything

As important as knowledge and capabilities are networks. Organization network expert Patti Anklam writes that “It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you and what you know about them, and what they know about you, and what you are learning, together, and how you work at that.” In other words, relationships are what make it possible to get things done. Without those relationships, we’re just talking to ourselves. And, while that might be amusing, it won’t get the job done.

What can organizations do to get ahead of the curve and anticipate impending talent gaps?

Start with the Data

First, start by getting a reality-based picture of your challenge. HR should have data on age and years to retirement. Do you have a big problem: over 15% of your workforce nearing retirement? Or is it a small problem? The extent of the challenge should dictate the extent of your efforts.

Focus

There’s a lot that you could do. It’s important, however, to focus your efforts on high value, high return activities. To identify these activities, ask:

  • What are the critical roles and capabilities in your organization?
  • If you took away X role or capability, would your business collapse or suffer?
  • Confirm your choices by asking staff, customers, and partners: who do you rely on in the organization? Who couldn’t you do without?

These are the roles and capabilities to focus on during the workforce planning process.

Mine

Identify your up-and-comers in the next generation. They’re the people who like to learn, and who are high potentials or solid performers. Don’t forget to tap those already well-connected to or knowledgeable about your critical roles and or capabilities.

Mentor

Set up mentoring programs between critical roles and your up-and-comers. Often, these programs are particularly welcome for people nearing retirement since they help them leave a legacy where they’ve worked. And it’s a win for the mentees as well, since they gain a cheerleader and confidant as they learn new skills and abilities.

In fact, mentoring is such a positive force in many organizations, perhaps you should consider it even if you aren’tfacing the boomer brain drain.

What do you think?