Passing It On: Students Dig into Knowledge Transfer at Siemens

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 3, 2018
Passing It On: Students Dig into Knowledge Transfer at Siemens

Siemens Corp., U.S. subsidiary of global manufacturing and electronics company Siemens AG that is based in Germany, realized a year ago that a significant percentage of its most experienced employees around the world would retire soon. However, it didn't have a plan to capture their institutional knowledge.

In fact, much of the nation's workers in the electricity and utilities sector are nearing retirement.

The average age of workers in the energy industry is now over 50 years old, and the industry estimates that up to half of its current workforce will retire within five to 10 years—more than 500,000 workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

"Industry hiring managers often report that lack of candidate training, experience, or technical skills are major reasons why replacement personnel can be challenging to find—especially in electric power generation," a Department of Energy report noted.

Organizations in all industries are facing brain drain—the loss of institutional knowledge that happens when experienced workers leave a company without passing on their expertise. Thirty-one percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of Baby Boomers (ages 52 to 72), and more than half—56 percent—hold leadership positions, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's (UNC) Kenan-Flagler Business School. Retiring Boomers are the "primary factor for brain drain" for businesses in the U.S., according to UNC. 

About 34 percent of Siemens' 50,000 U.S. employees are Baby Boomers, 23 percent are Millennials and 43 percent are members of Generation X.  

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Engaging in Succession Planning]  

3 Big Questions 

Siemens turned to Clemson University in South Carolina to study the problem. The company, which has a partnership with the school, funded an undergraduate research project through Clemson's Watt Family Innovation Center.

The result was a three-year project to find ways that Siemens could transfer institutional knowledge from outgoing Baby Boomers to incoming Millennials.

Students conducted interviews with 41 employees who had either less than five years of experience or more than 10 years of experience at the company. Two students also collected data while serving internships at the branch office in Tampa, Fla., and the company's marketing department, headquartered in Atlanta.

They focused on three questions:

  • What is the most effective way to transfer knowledge from a seasoned employee to someone with little industry knowledge?
  • How do you implement this knowledge transfer across all aspects of a business?
  • What is the role of technology in this knowledge transition?

No More 'Death by PowerPoint' 

The students' findings led to a list of action items.

"Clearly, one of the takeaways from the students in their initial report is no more death by PowerPoint," said Susan Whitlock, HR business partner at Siemens Corp. and based in Atlanta.

It's important to keep in mind that younger generations learn differently, and to adapt knowledge transfer accordingly, Whitlock observed.

"[Younger workers said] they don't want to sit in a conference room and have someone speak at them. They want a conversation. They want to sit next to somebody and see and experience."

While knowledge transfer was already taking place at Siemens, it needs to be interactive, such as aligning job shadowing with more formal training. In the past, transferring knowledge centered around an employee's departure, Whitlock noted.

Mentoring was among the recommendations—and 75 percent of Millennials want it, according to a survey from PGI, a provider of conferencing and collaboration solutions in Atlanta. Siemens already performs informal and formal mentoring, which the students saw as "a significant component of the knowledge sharing," Whitlock said.

"The thing that is different is the degree to which [mentoring] becomes a very integral part of knowledge transfer" so that younger workers learn by doing. "They don't need to know [something] 100 percent before they're unleashed" on a project. "Give them some responsibility, allow them to continue the learning, and have the feedback and interaction," she said.

Other recommendations from the research:

  • Encourage new hires and seasoned employees to socialize at work. There is a higher likelihood of participation than if social gatherings take place after hours.  
  • Provide open environments to facilitate interaction and collaboration in the workplace.
  • Treat interns as employees, not temporary labor, to encourage interns' investment in the company. 
  • Encourage more organic mentoring and reverse mentoring.

Tribal Knowledge  

The knowledge that needs to be passed along is "not as much about practical knowledge, but more of the tribal knowledge that these senior employees have from being here from 10 to even 40-plus years," according to Cris Higgins, Siemens' HR senior director. "You have to transfer your networking, your relationships and your know-how of getting things done," she noted in a news release.

The intern working with a tightly knit group of sales engineers at the Tampa office, for example, observed how knowledge was shared among the smaller pockets of what is a large corporation. Those relationships "are often the glue that holds a company together," the university noted in a news release.

The second phase of the project is in progress, with more recommendations expected later this year.  

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