There comes a time in your professional career when you begin to appreciate its vulnerability. You become more focused on the desire to leave a meaningful legacy for your employees and colleagues. Maybe you founded the company, maybe you run a large division or business unit, or maybe you head up a department. While your title is important, what matters most is how you will be remembered.
What man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least for a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way.
Ernest Becker, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author
We suggest that knowledge stewardship become a foundational element in your professional legacy planning.
The Business Case for Knowledge Stewardship
Most organizations recognize that enterprise knowledge is a precious asset. Company stock valuations are increasingly reflecting investor’s assessments of intangible assets. Unfortunately, most companies receive a failing grade for their knowledge stewardship activities. Preserving and protecting knowledge assets has not received much attention from senior executives. It’s ironic that large organizations spend hundreds of millions of dollars on security to protect their physical plant, property, and equipment, and smaller amounts on protecting software, databases, and patent and trademark portfolios. But in most organizations, safeguarding the vast majority of intellectual and knowledge assets—those that reside on laptops, in notebooks, and in the heads of every employee—has not yet become a top priority.
We define knowledge stewardship as the responsibility of executive management, acting as the agent for the company’s shareholders, to manage and safeguard the knowledge assets that are under their control. Knowledge stewardship is about preserving corporate knowledge and productivity, and it involves both a strategy for identifying, inventorying, and quantifying the value of the organization’s intellectual assets and the processes and practices necessary for protecting and enhancing their value over time.
The Lost Knowledge Crisis
Most enterprises today are facing an impending crisis in managing their knowledge assets. This crisis is a result of two significant workforce trends.
The first is an aging workforce. We characterize the aging workforce issue as a “crisis” for two reasons. First, there is increased recognition that the value of an enterprise is fundamentally related to the aggregate knowledge of its employees. Second, in some departments, business units, and companies, the rate of retirements and departures will exceed 50 percent or more within the next 10 years. The impact of this lost knowledge—the skills, learnings, relationships, and capabilities that are lost when experienced workers leave the enterprise—is especially critical for future success.
The second is a young and transient generation. Rates of employee turnover are increasing. For example, current data show that more than 60 percent of millennials leave their company in less than three years (Source: Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm, and Beyond.com). Other recent Millennial Branding reports show that 45 percent of companies experience high turnover with those employees identified as “millennials” – by a 2:1 margin versus older generations.
How executive leadership teams respond to both of these challenges today will have a significant impact on the organization’s long-term health and viability.