When Memory Walks Away

The challenge of dealing with retirements isn’t just replacing experienced people. It’s also somehow retaining the knowledge they carry with them.

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Imagine that you manage a clean-water plant with 15 operators. Within the next two years, four of them are likely to retire. Replacing them will be a challenge, because it’s hard to find bright young people interested in running a treatment plant.

But, chances are, you’re just as concerned with keeping on board the knowledge these retiring team members carry in their heads. That’s true especially because wastewater treatment involves art as well as science. It isn’t just a matter of following chemical formulas. It’s detecting and catering to the quirks of microorganisms and the way they respond to changes in the influent.

The new people coming on board — assuming you can find them — will be duly licensed and certainly well-qualified, but they will not have the knowledge of the plant’s history or the memory of how various crises were averted and process upsets resolved. They won’t know the idiosyncrasies of some of the older equipment. So, even if technically fully staffed, will there be times your facility has to fly blind?

Protecting a resource

The generic term for the knowledge long-time team members carry with them is “institutional memory.” It’s a valuable resource, and vast volumes of it can be lost when groups of people are laid off or retire.

And retire they will, likely on their schedule and terms, not yours. So how do you retain their knowledge at least long enough to impart it to the team members who remain? One way is to use technology, and that’s a path chosen by the Littleton/Englewood (Colo.) Wastewater Treatment Plant.

An article in this month’s issue of TPO tells how this facility uses a data management system to institutionalize best practices and standard operating procedures. A feature story from November 2009 describes the plant’s broader-based Knowledge Management Transfer program, essentially a gigantic electronic operations manual created by the city’s engineers after a major plant upgrade.

The people side

Technology today makes it possible to capture process knowledge in convenient, easy-to-use forms: In place of a dozen shelves’ worth of loose-leaf binders that quickly fall out of date, a single, easy-to-navigate computer database can be updated with minimal time and expense.
But not everything at a treatment plant comes down to rote instruction and procedures. There are still those intangibles experienced operators bring — like knowing when something is amiss just by the way things look, sound or smell, and remembering exactly what solved the problem the last time something similar occurred.

There are various ways to help retain that knowledge. One is to keep certain retired operators on board as consultants. Of course, such arrangements have their drawbacks. The retirees before long want to move on. Staff members feel reluctant to call them and would rather learn to solve problems on their own.

Another method is to make mentoring a permanent fixture of the organization, so that the experience of more senior operators is routinely passed down the chain to newer people. Still another method is a carefully crafted succession plan, which makes sure that no valuable team member leaves without a replacement having been fully trained over a period of years.

What is your solution?

If your facility is facing a wave of retirements, you’re certainly not alone — in fact, you’re in the majority. Are you concerned with preserving your institutional memory? If so, how are you going about it?

Send me a note to editor@tpomag.com and share information about your knowledge preservation initiatives. I promise to respond, and we will report on your ideas and successes in future issues of TPO.


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