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Keeping Employees and Retaining Knowledge: Hans Hirschi of Yaree on Employee Turnover (Interview)

Hans Hirschi is the co-founder and president of Yaree. He uses over 20 years of experience gathered within the Training and Development arena around the world to lead his company and to help customers optimize their human capital. His partners work with him to resolve questions about social responsibility and employer branding. More biographical information about Mr. Hirschi can be found at his website or LinkedIn site. He can be contacted by email at hans.hirschi@yaree.se

Q. Almost every time that an employee leaves, their knowledge leaves with them. Also, initiative may stall, new hires may receive insufficient on-boarding training, and performance suffers. What are organizations up against if they try to resolve that dilemma?

That is a big issue, I agree. Obviously, the best way to avoid such dilemmas is to avoid getting there in the first place. Therefore, I have always tried to make sure that employees don’t leave in the first place.

You mention knowledge loss as one factor that is really important. It is simply excruciatingly expensive to fire, hire, and to get people up to speed, not to mention the loss of work during the time no one is ”up and running.” I therefore believe that employee retention is critical. Hence my step backward. That is why we work with things like social responsibility, employer branding and human capital across the board. Making sure your staff is proud to work for you, making sure they have the tools (physically and mentally) to tackle tomorrow’s challenges are critical components in an environment where skilled labor is soon to become a shortage in many economies around the world.

My experience also tells me that investing in existing staff is a lot less expensive than hiring. Many large companies have already realized that, although there is a significant amount of lip service paid, instead of real commitment. Many smaller companies on the other hand (and this I’ve noticed all over the world) seem to believe that investing in your staff comes back to haunt you. They hold on to a conviction that if you train your staff, they’ll leave you instead. I have only one thing to say to them: I would never want to work with a company with ‘loyal’ but untrained staff… When I say ”loyal” I think it’s more due to the fact that they couldn’t get another job than actually enjoying being where they are, but that’s a different story.

However, as you point out, every now and then, people do leave organizations. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it actually is for the better. And in those cases it may be better to swallow the cost or having to re-hire, re-train and the loss of productivity, rather than trying desperately to hold on to each other (leading to other issues instead).

Companies who truly care about their competence and personnel development should have an ongoing process for the development of the organization as a whole along with personal development plans. As part of that, mentoring programs, knowledge/competence transition is a healthy component. And there are many ways to achieve that, all depending on the organization. I have seen examples where employees are tasked with training at least one back-up on every aspect of their jobs, others informally use their intranet to write up small Q&A sections on various parts of the organization, and I’ve even seen companies that allow staff to rotate across functions to create redundancy in competencies. Naturally, which approach you choose, is entirely up to budget and time constraints.

A word of caution though with regards to technology used: make sure it’s easy to use and not a burden on every day work or you’ll fail. Secondly, the entire organization needs to breathe this culture of ‘passing on’ knowledge to be successful in the endeavor.

(Not the shortest answer, but it’s a BIG question.)

Q. Have you experienced any “solutions” (e.g. mentoring programs, wikis, learning management systems, knowledge management systems, formal training programs, workshops, etc.)? How have they been helpful and not helpful?

I have, at least short term. The programs that have been most successful were those involving mentoring, job swaps etc. I have seen instances where companies tried to use technology, but either the introduction was too recent to make any long term statements or they failed miserably. I think technology has a huge potential, but it needs to focus on user friendliness rather than gadgets and data collection mania. Let me explain: In many instances, when you collect information from someone into a database, projects tend to go overboard very early on. Questionnaires are overloaded with additional questions and people seem to think ”well, since we already ask them, we might as well…” Not realizing that each and every data point collected needs to be gathered and entered into the system. Also these systems need to be analyzed and maintained, often long after budgets have been spent.

Time is also an issue. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects involving both Learning Management Systems and Wikis where there just was no strategic intent behind the plans. Someone decided that ”it might be a good idea to,” got funding, implemented and subsequently abandoned it. I feel the executive level needs to take a much more coherent look at these questions, make sure that knowledge transfer and organizational development really ARE strategic questions discussed and decided at their meetings. It’s only when people realize that it is mission critical that we’ll see real success over time.

Q. With the proliferation and adoption of social networking, what do you envision when you hear the term “online learning community,” especially when proposed as a solution?

I think that social networks already play an important role, particularly when it comes to informal learning (in the sense that it is outside the organization’s control). I often refer to friends and colleagues to find answers or get advice. That’s where these communities really add value, particularly given their global spread. The web as an extension works the same way, particularly the non-commercial parts (wikis, various interest groups etc.) where masses of knowledge are stored.

Learning Communities, with specific tools for learning and sharing knowledge, could play an important role, particularly if the number of people on them is large enough that you actually do find the answers you need. I strongly feel that there needs to be a space where company internal (confidential?) stuff can be handled, but also areas where you can get help from others. That way you can broaden the range of helpers and also significantly reduce the need to reinvent the wheel. Ever since I installed my first customer based LMS, I’ve dreamed of a solution that would allow the learner to engage with others real time in a learning environment. Places like LinkedIN, Facebook etc. have become substitutes for that, but since their primary raison d‘être is something entirely different, they don’t really do the job very well, not to mention questions about integrity and security that are unanswered. A learning community must rise to that challenge.

Q. How might the role of a human resources or Training and Development professional adapt to this new 21st century landscape?

You know, I don’t think there ever was a better time to be in this industry. I am so excited about all the possibilities and I still think that the Internet is as big a revolution to learning as Gutenberg’s book printing once was. HR & training professionals need to embrace the new world and become savvy real quick. I still meet trainers who feel threatened by the web. And I maintain every time that classroom training is not going to go away. As a species we have not evolved past face to face interaction, particularly for basic training, larger and more complex tasks/challenges. However, what the web has brought us (and 2.0 in particular), is the capability of getting whatever you need, 24×7 from literally any point on the planet from anyone online. It allows us to maintain knowledge, expand on it, share it and deepen it in a way that much more neatly integrates with our daily schedules. This was never possible with classroom only. I’m digressing, this is yet another big topic!

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the diffusion theory. It’s always been my experience that as an industry, training and particularly HR were always more laggards than anything else. However, to be successful in this century we need to be more of early adopters.

But remember what I said earlier about technology. I have two rules:

1. Technology needs to serve the purpose, never vice versa! 2. Keep it as simple as possible, no more no less!

Q. What books, blogs, and/or magazines would you recommend for our human resources and Training and Development readers? Why do you recommend them?

You mean beside my own? I’d rather refrain from recommending anything. It’s like the Oscars and you forget to thank your mom… Let me put it that way, there is a limited amount of time we get to spend on learning every day. I try to read a few regular publications from ASTD and I do follow a couple of blogs, newsletters & podcasts (as a company owner on various subjects).

But since you ask the question, let me just mention one thing I’ve become very dependent on during my commutes (I live on an island and spend 25 minutes on a ferry every morning and evening): my fruity smartphone. Being able to read news, watch webcasts and listen to podcasts has become an addiction. My favorite? TED.com, not because there is a lot of ”learning” related content, but because it’s learning that suits my personal learning style perfectly. Not to mention you learn things you never knew you needed and things that broaden perspectives.

We’ll have you at hello.

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