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Brain Drain: How to Use Knowledge Management to Mitigate the Associated Risks

Andy Cook on January 16, 2018 · 5 minute read

Do you manage a team or run a company? If so, you’ve probably had someone leave and you know how disruptive that can be to your business processes and your organization as a whole.

What you might not be aware of is the consequence of several employees leaving your organization at once, or in sequence, otherwise known as ‘brain drain.’ Brain drain occurs when any knowledgeable worker leaves an organization. The years of expertise that person accrued leave with her, and the organization loses the learnings when she walks out the door.

Why and how does brain drain occur?

Brain drain can occur for a number of reasons. Even if all your employees are happy and you don’t think brain drain will happen at your organization, there are external factors which could cause your team to leave that are mostly out of your control.

Economical or industrial circumstances

Economic instability or crisis can prompt serious brain drain. Consider Europe, where entire countries including Ireland, Spain, Greece, and Italy have felt the effects of widespread brain drain.

Spain experienced crippling high unemployment, particularly in the millennial generation, with 1 in 4 people unemployed. As a consequence, they’ve been hit with waves of professionals leaving for other European countries to take up positions that not only pay well but offer them stability in what is a chronically unstable country. If your employees believe that your organization may not grow due to economic circumstance and there don’t see a path for personal growth, they might leave.

Industry-based brain drain is as equally damaging. For example the Indian agricultural industry is suffering due to the migration of their young professionals moving to cities away from rural areas in order to pursue digital or business orientated careers. Half of India’s population is under 29, but 60% of those young people live in villages, highlighted the scale of the problem. A happy employee might decide to leave to live an urban area with access to more amnetities.

Internal issues causing brain drain

The reasons why an individual leaves a company are often quite personal to them, however, there are certainly a few recurring reasons why employees decide to move on from their current roles. That is particularly true for today’s young professionals, who are becoming renowned for shifting between roles several times. It’s estimated that young Millennials are on track to surpass four job changes by the time they hit age 32.

Some of the more  typical reasons why people leave an organization include:

  • A poor manager or boss who proves difficult to work under
  • A lack of opportunities for personal or professional growth
  • An offer for a better job with higher pay at another company
  • A lack of communication between colleagues

While these are all timeless reasons for employee dissatisfaction and are relevant to today’s modern workplace, there are also some other factors that can also heavily influence younger workers.

For the growing millennials workforce in particular, there’s more to work than what you get paid. According to Deloitte’s 2017 survey of over 8,000 millennials workers, your organization needs to meet expectations in relation to:

  • professional development,
  • flexibility,
  • and bespoke working arrangements.

If your organization fails to achieve this you’ll likely find that retaining your talent becomes increasingly difficult. The company culture and what your firm stands for can also have a substantial impact on how badly the company is affected by brain drain.

Ageing companies and employees

The baby boomer generation is setting a record high for retirement, with approximately 10,000 experienced employees leaving their jobs each day. By 2030, 20% of the US population is expected to be 65 or older, the usual age for retirement.

Why is this a problem? Well, these experienced employees leave their companies without passing on the bulk of their knowledge, skills, and wisdom that they’ve collected over the last 30-40 years, otherwise known as tacit knowledge. When they leave to retire, all the knowledge retires with them. It might not all useful or up to date, but knowing the institutional knowledge of an organization or industry can be extremely helpful for predicting patterns in the market. Without documenting know-how, it gets lost and is gone.

Using knowledge management to mitigate risk of brain drain affecting your company’s performance

Brain drain affects your organization no matter the circumstance of an employee’s departure. Luckily, organizations can use knowledge management techniques to mitigate the loss of expertise and experience, which include:

Assess current workforce to pinpoint weaknesses and information silos

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each employee?
  • Have we onboarded an employee in a similar role to learn from
  • Do we have a mentor-mentee system in place?
  • Are there a few employees who hold key information and are knowledge experts?

For example: There might only be a just one employee who knows a huge amount of information about the security systems in place to protect your organization from software threats. If she leaves abruptly and there is no backup plan, all that information could leave with her.

Suggestion: You might want to consider putting in place measures that make this information accessible to others should these senior employees leave. Set up a knowledge sharing system to expose what information the rest of the organization doesn’t know, or assign this person an mentee to glean some of the important information from her as she goes about her day to day.

Determine where employees currently go to find information

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How are your employees finding out things they don’t know the answer to already?
  • Do they ask teammates directly through a shoulder tap?
  • Is important information trapped in people’s inboxes, documents or heads?

For example: if there are commonly occurring questions across your organization, where are employees going to find answers? If they’re going directly to other employees this is a poor form of knowledge sharing because information remains trapped in the knowledge experts heads.

Suggestion: Use software or new technology to store commonly required information in a central location, such as an internal wiki.

Figure out which employees are most likely to leave

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are older employees nearing retirement age?
  • Has a critical employee been in the same role for more than two years?
  • Do you run an employee net promoter score system and are the results low?
  • Does an employee do regular one-on-one check ins with a manager who is keeping track of their employee happiness?
  • Are there other life circumstances or changes to an employees situation to take into consideration?

For example: Are there employees with elderly parents, employees who have partners living abroad for a job or employees who just had a child?

Suggestion: Setup a regular cadence of one-on-one meetings to determine an employee’s goals and offer incentives that are specific to that person’s needs. Maybe you have an employee who can only work four day weeks going forward, but is prepared to work longer hours on those four days. Come up with a flexible work schedule to meet that employee’s needs.

👋🏾 CEO at Tettra. Tall & bearded. Loves cooking, reading, learning new things and helping others. Previously worked at HubSpot and cofounded Rentabilities.