Lost Knowledge, Lost Opportunities…

Post Series: Barry


Barry Boyle – Skillpad CEO

In this article, Skillpad CEO, Barry Boyle explains what you can do now to combat the knowledge exodus and continue to benefit from your company’s Intellectual Capital.

Over the next ten years, millions of experienced professionals will retire as the “baby boomers” come to the end of their careers. With them will go years of accumulated knowledge and expertise with serious consequences for many industries including chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Capturing this potentially “lost knowledge” should therefore be a top priority for all companies.

Two recent developments motivated the writing of this article. Firstly, as noted elsewhere in this month’s newsletter, Skillpad is experiencing an upsurge in custom content development. Increasingly, clients are asking us to convert “old” training materials accumulated in formats such as hard-copy handouts, overheads, PowerPoint files, etc. to state-of-the-art custom e-Learning lessons.

The second development is the recent publication of an intriguing and timely new book called “Lost Knowledge – Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce by leading MIT researcher David W DeLong.1 In Lost Knowledge, Dr. DeLong addresses the impending loss of critical knowledge due to the coming retirement of the “baby boomer” generation – the term given to those born between 1945 and 1964 who helped build the modern Western economy in the post-war boom years of massive growth and technological advancement.

Starting this year, when the first baby boomers turn 60, millions of experienced workers will retire and take their valuable expertise with them – unless companies act now to capture and retain this knowledge for the benefit of their existing and future workforce.

DeLong highlights the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors as being particularly vulnerable as large numbers of R&D, engineering, and manufacturing professionals retire over the next decade. For example, in a related study2, he describes how an investigation into an explosion at a US chemical plant revealed that the engineer in charge had only been out of college a year and that the operators all had less than a year of experience in the affected unit.

He also points out that even when errors are not caused by inexperience, “diagnosing and fixing them often takes longer when veteran employees are no longer around to help.”

At Skillpad we believe that the custom work in which we specialize will become increasingly important in preventing problems just like the one described. When a client approaches our company with an assortment of training materials on some important subject and requests that we put the material into an “e-Learning format”, the client, in effect, is using us to retain, in a modern easy-to-use medium, the knowledge and experience that a senior employee has accumulated over his/her years of work. By taking this ‘Knowledge Conversion’ approach the client company is ensuring that other employees will continue to benefit from the expertise of a senior employee but without the need for the senior employee to be present, i.e. similar to the situation after his/her retirement.

Currently, the main motivation for Knowledge Conversion is to save the senior employee’s time which may be better used elsewhere. The e-Learning approach also allows trainees to study whenever they wish using 24/7 availability on the Web, while obtaining the benefit of speed that e-Learning provides (30 – 40% faster than traditional methods for the same level of comprehension). In addition, the electronic format allows ease of updating and/or adding of information. Increasingly, however, we believe that the main driver of conversions will be a desire to permanently retain and utilize the accumulated knowledge that only years of experience can bring.

DeLong looks at many different methods of retaining the critical knowledge presently in the heads of “close-to-retirement” personnel. He points out that there are, broadly speaking, two different types of knowledge: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is easy to codify and can be shared independent of its human source or it can be embedded in processes or systems. Tacit knowledge “includes cognitive skills such as beliefs, images, intuition and mental models as well as technical skills such as craft and know-how.” According to DeLong, many of the old ways of passing-on knowledge, such as mentoring and coaching, are no longer possible due largely to the current pressures of workload as well as radical differences with younger employees’ level of education and approach to work.

The message from “Lost Knowledge” is clear: companies must decide what knowledge is critical and build knowledge retention into their strategic planning and do so NOW before the baby boomers retire.

Skillpad believes that Knowledge Conversion of “old” training materials to modern e-Lessons mentioned above is one excellent way a company could start TODAY to convert in-house knowledge, tacit and explicit, into a modern medium for ongoing training of younger and/or less experienced employees.

Our methodology includes examination of the old training material as well as discussing its background with the author, interpreting the intentions and knowledge-transfer expectations, then developing the content. Finally, the senior employee is given the opportunity to study the new e-Lesson and comment on its completeness.

Factors that would encourage a senior employee, and potential retiree, to participate in this knowledge-transfer would be:

  • Desire to help his or her employer if retirement is approaching
  • Confirmation of the value of a senior employee’s accumulated expertise during his or her career at the company
  • Acknowledgment of the senior employee’s contribution to the continued success of the company by including his or her name on the lesson screens
  • Use of storytelling to describe particularly valuable lessons learned during the senior employee’s years of experience, to enhance and make the lesson interesting
  • Using the senior employee’s voice as the voiceover or narration for the e-Lesson


The main benefit to the company would be the preservation and protection of Intellectual Capital that had taken many years to acquire.

As DeLong points out, “companies that introduce initiatives that burden employees with additional tasks are doomed to fail”. Hence, the role of Skillpad in collating and analyzing “old” training material, interviewing key senior employees, visiting the company’s production facilities and converting the material to an electronic medium is more likely to produce success in retaining critical knowledge before it is lost.

  1. Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce – David DeLong, August 2004, Oxford University Press. Web: www.lostknowledge.com


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Contact us to learn more about how Skillpad can help your company.


Barry Boyle

Since Barry’s arrival in late 2004 he has been consolidating the company’s traditional business of leasing its library of compliance e-Lessons to Pharmaceutical manufacturing companies and, in late 2006, adding a new business based on his background namely, the use of e-learning to improve productivity in industrial manufacturing in 3 crucial areas:
Reduce time to market – new plant construction.
Continuous Productivity Improvement Program – ongoing operations.
Saving “baby boomer” knowledge for future operations.

This new business will show industrial manufacturing companies and their consultants/contractors how to apply e-learning as a tool to do “old” things better namely, Project Management and Plant Operations Maintenance.