The concept of veteran employees mentoring their less-experienced colleagues is not a new one. The benefits are well known: Mentoring can be a big help both in onboarding new employees and in preparing the best of the crop to become the next generation of leaders.
But, if your organization doesn’t practice mentoring, you’re missing out on another benefit that you may not have thought about: the transfer of organizational knowledge from the old guard to the new.
The problem is especially acute these days with the large cohort of Baby Boomers, who dominated the workforce for four decades-plus, finally starting to pass from the scene. (The oldest Boomers turn 70 this year, and even with people working longer, many of these folks are likely to retire.)
To understand the role of mentoring, we need to look at what we mean by organizational knowledge. There are two main types:
1) Formal. This knowledge is embodied in employee handbooks, policy manuals, recorded procedures and other written documents that new occupants of a position can study. This knowledge tends not to get lost from generation to generation of employees.
2) Informal. This knowledge is mainly in people’s heads, and so is vulnerable to such vagaries of organizational life as the unexpected departure of a key individual or individuals. We’re talking about the knowledge of “how we do things here” — the lore acquired in many moons around the organization’s tribal campfire.
They don’t know they know
The odd thing about the latter kind of knowledge is that, having been acquired informally and by accretion, the veteran employees who possess it may not even know what they know. But it’s there, and can be teased out during mentoring sessions by younger mentees who have been specifically instructed to do so.
Of course, you won’t hide this mission from the mentors. Tell them that the institutional knowledge they possess is invaluable to the organization, and you want to make sure it doesn’t “die” with them when they leave, whenever that might be.
A caveat: An experienced employee who thinks a younger co-worker is angling to take over his/her job won’t necessarily be all that cooperative. So make sure your mentors understand that you’re merely taking out an “insurance policy” to make certain that critical knowledge is transmitted and not lost.
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