2024 is going to be a year like any other for senior executives, only more so.

The trends we have been talking about for years are only accelerating. What was once a trickle is becoming a flood. Where we used to talk about future trends, now we are seeing things really happening every day, and each day sees more of it than the last.

Now I could use those first four sentences to start a blog post about any number of topics right now, but I’m going to put two specific thoughts out there and then talk about them for 2500 words or so: This is the first time in the history of the modern world where five distinct generations are all in the workforce at the same time, and by most estimates 10,000 Baby Boomers are retiring in North America every single day.

I have been making industry conferences for 15 years now, and I remember, ‘The Baby Boomers are going to retire. What are we going to do?’ being an important topic of conversation even at the start of my career. Well, a lot has happened in those 15 years. The 2008 Great Recession prevented the vast majority of Baby Boomers from retiring as early as they had hoped, and the Global Pandemic has also kept many of them working longer than they intended to for any number of reasons, but we cannot delay any longer. It is happening.

There were ~72 million people born in the United States between 1946 and 1964. The oldest Boomers are 78, and one hopes they have now overwhelmingly left the workforce to enjoy their retirement. The youngest Boomers are 60 this year, and we live in a world where people talk about early retirement in their late-50s or early-60s, get serious about it at 65, and get seriously impatient if they are still doing a 40-hour workweek at 70.

The bulk of the generation that has powered the world’s economy for the last three decades and more are 65 or older this year. We are —at long last— approaching the point where we can start thinking about the Baby Boomer Generation as a spent economic force.

‘The Baby Boomers are going to retire. What are we going to do?’ Was what we were talking about 15 years ago. In 2024, let’s update and emphasize that to read, ‘The Baby Boomers are retiring! What are we doing?!’

Don’t Panic. Take Stock.

Why don’t we start by taking some of the fear out of the situation? As much as the Baby Boomer Generation has been told they are the largest generation in history with a crucial economic impact all of their lives, they had children, and in many cases their children have now had children. Time has marched on, and there are more people working than there have ever been before.

The definitions of when the generations start and stop is slightly variable from source to source, which impacts direct comparisons, but by every metric if Generation X was only about half as big as the Baby Boomers, the Millennials were at least 10% bigger, and if you add Generation Z and the eldest Generation Alpha who are now teenagers starting their first entries into the workforce, that is an even larger workforce at the start of their careers than the Millennials. We are in no danger of running out of people just because the most senior and experienced workers are finally downing tools and thinking about their golden years.

Now, there’s the rub, though, isn’t it? The most senior and experienced people, many of whom were daydreaming about retiring at 55, are now finally leaving between one and two decades later than they thought they might.

The people who know how things work, where things are kept, what to do if such-and-such happens, who to call when you need X, all of those people are going to be gone.

They do not need to take that knowledge with them when they go, but it is up to the senior leadership of every business to identify what needs to be retained and make sure that information is recorded, passed on, or otherwise retained.

Organizations Live and Die on Institutional Knowledge

There is an old joke whose details can be tailored to any kind of business, but the gist of it is a crucial machine breaks down. A specialist is called in, and he’s going to cost $500/hr to fix the problem with at least an hour as his minimum fee, but what can be done? Nothing else can happen until this machine is up and running again. Well, the specialist looks the whole thing over for a few minutes, goes into his tool bag, takes out a large hammer, reaches way into the machine, taps the hammer gently three times and then one hard smack, pulls out his arm, says, “Try it now?” and sure enough the machine roars to life, no problem.

“I can’t pay you $500 for that!” The man in charge of the machine splutters. “$500 for an hour’s work? You only looked at it for a minute or two and then hit it with a hammer a few times!”

“That’s right,” the specialist said. “If it helps, don’t think of it as paying me for the full hour. You’re paying me for the 20 years it took me to learn how to fix your problem in a couple of minutes.”

That specialist has institutional knowledge on how that machine works. If the company could afford him, they would do well to put him on staff.

Joking aside, I would like everyone reading this to take a moment and remember the last time something unexpected happened at work. Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it was a bad thing. It was definitely something that had to be dealt with immediately. Who did you go to about it? Why?

You trusted that person to know what to do, which means you need that person to communicate what they know so that other people will know it too.

What about when you go on vacation, or you have a special project, or you need to onboard a new hire and want someone who really knows the job to show them the ropes? Who do you trust?

That’s the person who has institutional knowledge that you are going to want to retain, even if they aren’t about to retire. Your organization doesn’t need one of those people. It needs many of them, and it needs to understand how that person does what they do a little differently and a little better than anyone else put in that job such that they have become your go-to person for so many tasks.

So What Do We Do?

I said at the top I wanted to talk about two things: Five generations working together, and the Baby Boomers retiring. Most of the last thousand words have been about the later. Let’s circle back to the former and start talking about action points.

People are going to leave the company. Maybe they’re going to retire. Maybe they’re going to go do something else with the rest of their working life. Maybe —God forbid— they are going to get hit by a bus. What are you doing right now to proactively prepare your organization for that person’s absence?

The fact of the matter is your top performers and people with institutional knowledge —Baby Boomer or not— started off not knowing anything, and over the course of their working lives, they gained the knowhow that you count on and that you cannot afford to lose. What are you doing to get other people in other generations throughout your organization ready to learn and grow within their professional lives? Are your Generation X employees prepared to do what the people ten years older than them are doing? What about the Millennials? What about the Gen Zs?

Yes, we have all kinds of metrics showing these distinct generations learn differently, but knowing that lets you make this part of your plan to retain and transmit institutional knowledge. If anything, it can be an enormous advantage that they learn differently than their elders, because the needs of right now mean they have to learn it faster than their predecessors did, and maybe a higher comfort level with technology and diversified teaching methods will let them leverage different tools and tactics to achieve results in less time.

Let’s make a checklist by asking some questions.

  1. Have you identified who in your organization needs to be the focus of a project to retain institutional knowledge while they are still part of your team? You probably do not have the bandwidth to do this for 100% of your senior employees. Who are the ones with a deep understanding of your business whose expertise you truly rely upon?
  2. Have you decided who would be the best person or people to work with that important employee closely for a while? This is more involved than you might at first think. This doesn’t necessarily follow a current hierarchy or chain of command. Personality is going to come into play for creating and maintaining effective partnerships. So, likely, is technical knowhow. Even if the plan isn’t so much to do a one-to-one knowledge transfer as it is to document how the prioritized person does their job, you still need someone who is going to be able to interact with the expert and effectively get the information you are looking to retain. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here. Part of being a leader is coming up with bespoke solutions because of your awareness of the specifics informing your decision-making. You really need to put some thought into this, or the whole thing doesn’t work.
  3. Have you decided how you are going to incentivize everyone involved into gladly participating in this exercise? Again, this is not going to be as simple as you might imagine. You are asking someone who almost certainly understands their value to the organization to reveal all the ‘secrets’ involved in what makes them so valuable. If they weren’t planning to leave immediately, why would they give that up for free? If their departure is imminent, what motivates them to do this extra project for you on the way out the door? The incentive does not necessarily need to be money —again, coming up with bespoke motivational tools falls under the responsibilities of a leader— but institutional knowledge is much better achieved with carrots than with sticks. It should also be mentioned that the person or people partnered with the top performer should also be properly motivated to do this task that is outside their normal job responsibilities. If the institutional knowledge is truly that valuable, then don’t be afraid to invest in getting what you need. There will be an ROI for whatever you put into making it work.
  4. What do the brass tacks of gathering this institutional knowledge look like? This is going to vary based on what they do and what makes them so valuable, of course. Is it a series of regular interviews? Is it job shadowing? Is it documenting their day-to-day? Is it asking them to slow down and literally teach people how to do things step-by-step? Whatever it is, this is going to impact how much time they spend doing their actual job, and it is also going to be taking the person or people engaging with them away from their normal tasks. How are you accounting and compensating for that?
  5. What does successful institutional knowledge retention look like, and how can you document progress? That’s a simple question with almost certainly a complex answer. Are you expecting a manual or a textbook to be produced from these interactions? Should things go into some kind of digitized record? Is this about building a training module that people can sign up to take? Or are you just taking one expert and getting them to train, say, three experts ready to take their place? None of these ideas are necessarily better than any of the others, but a conscious decision needs to be made at the start of the project about what you want to come out of it on the far side, and then you need to put some metrics and goals and suggested timelines in place along the way to make sure you are moving in the right direction or to otherwise guide course corrections along the way.
  6. When is the project over, and what comes next? Does institutional knowledge retention start when a vulnerability is perceived and continue on until that valuable employee actually leaves? Isn’t that a rather resource-intensive course of action that may even accelerate your expert’s departure? Without dictating a right way to do things, it may be to your advantage to ask the person or people who are working with your top performer what a successful conclusion would look like to  them, and upon meeting that criteria while the day-to-day efforts of institutional knowledge retention may stop, a regular touching-base update should be scheduled to keep the valued employee the opportunity to add to and revise whatever was produced. The employees should feel a sense of authorship in the project, and that connection should give them pleasure and comfort as they remain connected and appreciated by the organization for as long as they choose to stay.
  7. What do you do with what you have created out of the exercise? Again, this is probably going to vary widely based on what your project actually achieved, but the worst thing you can do with any collected information is let it stagnate. It should be used. It should be kept up to date. Would it not be incredible for everyone involved if whatever was retained was taught —perhaps even taught by the expert and the experts they have now trained— to others? That would both sense-check its value and correctness over time, and also communicate its key takeaways beyond the original scope of bringing would-be replacements up to speed so many can benefit from the work of a few.

More can be said. Books and podcasts and lecture series have been produced on this topic. The important thing to end this blog post on is that this is happening now. It is not new —in the history of work, it has never been new— but it is happening more now than ever. If you do not have a formal institutional knowledge retention plan in place, then it is happening without you in fits and starts throughout your organization as junior employees ask senior employees how to do something.

Structure is going to help.

Structure and resources are going to dramatically improve the end result.

Structure and resources and the active endorsement and participation of senior leadership may well make the difference between your organization’s continued prosperity and facing real self-inflicted disruption in the near-future.

If any of this is not something you are already doing, give it real thought. It is up to you to avoid damaging your business through neglect of something that is within your power to proactively fix to the betterment of many on your team.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.