As the founder of a company, you’ve learned to expect to lose people, often your best people, and grin and bear it when your star performer tells you she’s moving on. You go through the steps of trying capture some of the institutional and project knowledge that leaves when anybody does. But a lot of people don’t realize how often job changes happen — and how much the job market has changed since companies last paid attention to how they managed knowledge loss.
The average Baby Boomer will probably retire having had about 12 or 13 jobs, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. The typical Millennial, on the other hand might hold as many as 20. And those are nationwide statistics. In Silicon Valley, where startups blink out as quickly as fireflies in a process of creative destruction, the pace is probably much quicker. You can be a great engineer and work at a dozen or more software companies just in your 20s and 30s.
Of course, you should take the right legal steps to guard inventions and intellectual property. Most companies I know have that part down pat.
But if you want to be at the forefront of managing knowledge, keep two other priorities in mind: Keep a relationship with your co-worker even after he’s gone, and make sure all of the knowledge that co-worker has doesn’t reside only in his head.
“The only thing that gives an organization a competitive edge, the only thing that is sustainable, is what it knows, how it uses what it knows and how fast it can know something,” says Larry Prusak, a long-time researcher in the field of knowledge management.
Here are my five tips for the steps companies can take to keep their knowledge from walking out the door.
1. See employee resignations as an opportunity.
It seems at first that you’re losing someone who was a co-worker, and, in many cases, a friend. But in the new world of work, there are a million ways to keep that person in your network. A departure means your network will grow twice: You’ll have someone on the outside, still staying in touch, probably moving on and up in the world. And you’ll have the chance to bring someone new into your company.
2. Set up a place where former co-workers can continue to contribute.
Many people invested a lot in what they built at your company, and they’ll want to keep in touch and keep contributing. Can you set up an alumni group on LinkedIn? Can you keep co-workers as members on some of your shared spaces, like folders in Dropbox, Libraries in Kifi, or channels in Slack ? How about inviting them to a once-a-year party? In The Alliance, authors Reid Hoffman (my old boss at LinkedIn!), Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh point out that companies including Accenture , eBay and Harvard Business School have set up alumni networks. There are three different kinds of engagement with your former teammates:
- Ignore: not advisable!
- Support: ad hoc support, such as maintaining mailing lists, pizza parties and endorsing the independent efforts of alumni
- Invest: offer benefits such as alumni discounts, coordinate intelligence-gathering from alumni, dedicate staff to developing the network
3. Keep the majority of your knowledge hosted online:
Assuming you’re not in an industry with a lot of tight regulations, bake knowledge sharing into your processes. This almost de facto means hosting a lot online. It’ll make you productive, and it also means knowledge is retained as people move from job to job. There are other benefits, too: The knowledge is accessible to all of your team from anywhere. Some of my favorite apps for team communication: Slack and Asana. Tons of great companies have been built in Silicon Valley using Jira and HipChat.
4. Be obsessive about sharing knowledge within your team.
Different people learn and organize knowledge in different ways, so you might need more than one tool to get the job done. Look for tools that have granular controls, so you can customize to your teams’ needs. Look for tools that enable knowledge sharing in different ways. And look for tools that integrate and export to other tools. What is important is to put knowledge out there in such a way — an integrated, contextual way — so that people can find it when they need it. When your co-worker is leaving, a lot of what he or she knows has already been incorporated into the team’s base of knowledge.
5. Give credit where it’s due.
Not only do you need to have the tools to share knowledge, but you need to create an atmosphere of trust, where credit is given where credit is due. People will share willingly and keep in touch after they’ve gone if it pays them to do so. Be generous as you acknowledge their contributions, while they are on your team, and afterwards.
It’s not really that they’ve left your team at all — they just helped you make it bigger.