Advancing Knowledge Retention in Energy Industries

Posted on August 22nd, 2014 by
   

America’s workforce is getting older, a trend oftentimes referred to as the “Silver Tsunami.”

Workers in energy and other industries are at or rapidly approaching retirement. For their employer, it can be problematic, especially if the employer has not taken adequate steps toward workforce knowledge retention.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020 more than 25 percent of U.S. workers in all industries will be 55 or older, continuing a trend since 2000 of an increasing number of older employees in the workforce.

Energy industries are feeling the effects. For example, in 2012, in the electric and natural gas industry, the median age of employees was 51.2 and the percentage of workers age 45 or older was 62.7 percent. In other industries: nonmetallic mineral mining, median age 46.3, 55.7 percent age 45 or older; pipeline transmission, age 46.2, 50.8 percent; electricity generation, transmission and distribution, age 45.5, 51.9 percent; petroleum refining, age 43.3, 45 percent.

In the right of way industry in 2011, 75 percent of employees were 45 or older. More than one third, 34.6 percent, were age 55 to 64, rapidly approaching retirement.

One of the critical challenges facing private and public employers is the ability to recruit and retain a skilled workforce. Without skilled and educated employees, efforts to create and sustain a competitive energy industry will be hindered.

The average age of energy industry workers is near 50, 10 years older than the average age of all U.S. workers. Half of the workers in oil and natural gas and technical workers in electric utilities have retired or will soon. With ranks of employees dropping and in diversifying energy supply from oil, natural gas and coal to renewable sources, there will be a critical need for recruiting an adequate supply of workers to sustain the current energy infrastructure, and employees with the skills demanded by alternative energy industries.

As a large number of employees retire from energy industries, there also will be a need to build up knowledge retention to assist in the transition from experienced to inexperienced employees.

In fact, knowledge retention is a pressing issue for all industries. Workers approaching retirement possess unique and, unfortunately in some cases, undocumented knowledge of projects and processes. When those employees retire or leave for another reason, the organization must not only replace the individual, but also skills, industry knowledge, project expertise and institutional knowledge. It is understandable that 80 percent of human resources professionals identify the aging workforce as their biggest worry. Less than half of those professionals, though, say their organization has a plan to address it.

The good news is that more companies are committing resources to encourage institutional knowledge retention and foster its transfer from experienced to inexperienced employees. It’s a formidable task, but organizations are taking positive steps by centralizing their records management system and standardizing their organizational, job and project development processes.

Information is one of any organization’s most valuable assets. Surprisingly, though, there continues to be reliance upon antiquated record-keeping and project information systems. The resulting difficulties produce a host of inefficiencies. When records are lost or information undocumented, project details are left to the memory of longtime veteran employees. Those details go out the door with the retiree. This scenario is being repeated time and again in one organization after another that is ill prepared to transition from its aging workforce. It will be repeated more frequently in coming years unless organizations establish systems and processes to achieve knowledge retention.

Without a centralized records management system and standardized processes an organization risks inaccuracies, inconsistencies and duplication of effort. Undocumented information known only by retiring veterans leaves the remaining staff questioning the accuracy of the organization’s records. Oftentimes they will create their own record-keeping system. But that can duplicate work.

To achieve knowledge retention, and greater efficiency, organizations should convert its records into a central database. This conversion is facilitated through data migration, which involves transferring information from various sources and formats into a single software solution. The process migrates the organization’s paper records, maps, photos, jpg files, pdf files, Word files, spreadsheets and other data into a centralized Web database. The migration extracts data from its original source, corrects errors, reformats it and loads it into one easily accessible location without loss or damage to the original information.

Once the data is centralized, employees can quickly access and update project information. Employee training can be streamlined. Centralization eliminates uncertainty in searching for records, supplying an historical perspective that replaces much of the project information kept in the memory of retirees and those approaching retirement.

A central database built upon a Web platform offers mobile application for work in the field, detached application when connectivity is unreliable, and GIS mapping that can broaden the use of information that is gathered. In addition, the database facilitates knowledge retention. Organizations gain real-time information and flexibility. Authorized personnel receive comprehensive project information. Reports and software dashboards help in understanding progress, issues and bottlenecks, which can aid decision-making.

The Web-based central data system increases the value of information. Information silos are eliminated. Rather than using spreadsheets to manage property information and lease agreements, or using email to issue new project notifications and reports, the central data system automates these tasks according to the desired schedule, recipients and payment amounts. The possibilities of costly errors and project delays are greatly reduced. This method of managing data increases speed, convenience and efficiency. Staff won’t be compelled to create their own processes and record-keeping systems.

To advance knowledge retention, organizations should also initiate process standardization, which is the collection and implementation of best practices – the organization’s processes, job duties and project development – known to that point. It is the most efficient method to produce a product or perform a service at a balanced flow to achieve a desired rate of output. In public and private sectors, there are significant benefits to standardization, including documentation of the current process for all shifts, reductions in variability, easier training of new employees, less chance of errors and duplicating work, fewer injuries, less stress, and establishment of a baseline for improvement. Transitioning to standardized processes leads to a higher degree of customer satisfaction. It improves efficiencies in costs and schedules that lead to a stronger bottom line, achieving organizational strategies and objectives, and a durable outlook for the future.

Process standardization is created by the process users based upon customer requirements known by management, supervisors and the users themselves. Standardization adds discipline to the organizational culture. It supports quality and audits, and promotes problem-solving and team-building. Standardized processes evolve with the organization and its projects and technology. This collection of best practices serves as a tool in streamlining the transition from experienced to inexperienced employees, thereby alleviating concerns related to an aging workforce and institutional knowledge retention.

By converting historical data and project information into a central Web database, and adding mobile technology and other capabilities, the organization not only has streamlined processes for its field agents, but also utilized a software solution as a technological foundation for standardizing workflow and job tasks, and achieving knowledge retention.

The Web platform’s dashboard-focused interface provides organization users easy and secure access to the database. Existing project and organizational information, including process standardization documents, can be quickly retrieved. That information can be edited, approved and uploaded into the system with an audit trail of any changes. The software becomes a tool for process standardization. Because it remains an integral part of the organization through changes of personnel, the software facilitates knowledge retention.

Challenges related to an aging workforce and a lack of knowledge retention have, literally, been years in the making. Industries can meet the challenge by being proactive. By spotting the warning signs and inefficiencies, and responding appropriately, an organization can achieve knowledge retention through the transition from its aging workforce. The positive actions taken today can provide an edge over the competition.

Dan Liggett is Communications and Public Relations Manager for geoAMPS, a technology company in the Columbus, OH, area that specializes in software solutions to manage land rights and infrastructure assets. For more information, call 614-389-4871 or visit www.geoamps.com. 

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