3 Smart Steps to Stop Brain Drain

These Three Steps Help Preserve Institutional Knowledge

Jodi JohnsonFebruary 8, 2018

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Each day, 10,000 baby boomers call it quits. The “brain drain,” as it’s being called, has been underway for several years as older workers retire at a rapid pace—a pace that’s expected to continue for the next decade and beyond.  The “brain drain” can sometimes refer to the emigration of skilled workers to another country, but in the U.S., it has come to represent the mass exodus of technical and institutional knowledge from American businesses as Baby Boomers retire. Yet they still represent close to a third of the workforce, with the youngest among them turning 54 this year. These “gray hairs” as they’re also often referred to, represent the most experienced and knowledgeable employees in many industries and at many organizations, and they hold the majority of business leadership positions.

Throw a Stone, Hit a “Talent Crisis”

As the Ginsu steak knife guy would tell you, and Boomers will surely remember, “But wait, there’s more!” The “brain drain” was big news back when the first Baby Boomers hit retirement age. But even now we’re seeing the leading edge of its impact. Industries such as advertising, insurance, nursing, and tech—just to name a few—are all reporting a shortage of talent, attributable not just to the exit of this largest generation, but a host of other reasons as well.  In short, an organization’s human capital—likely already its greatest asset behind or alongside its data—is becoming an even more valuable resource. There is no way to prevent employee attrition, and there are plenty of ways to try and improve employee retention. But beyond that, organizations need to take steps to preserve their institutional knowledge through collaboration, communication, and governance to capture and curate that knowledge.

Three Steps to Preserving Institutional Knowledge

Institutional knowledge is two-pronged, with both a quantitative and qualitative side. It comes not just from the accumulation of information, but from the accrual of experience. Older employees have a history of successes and blunders that inform their perspective, in addition to their expertise. Therefore, organizations must capture both sides in order to retain critical insights.

Knowledge Transfer

Knowledge transfer is key to preserving institutional knowledge, and one component of that is succession planning. Organizations often err by only applying this to the upper echelon of executive leadership, when at a minimum it should involve essential roles throughout the enterprise. Organizations should target critical management, as well as any unicorns among employees. Do you have employees who seem to be the go-to resource for issues, again and again? Are there highly technical or specialized roles filled by just one or two employees? All of these need to be included.

Formalized knowledge transfer also involves detecting talent gaps across operational areas and opening communication to increase sharing and dissemination of information. A formal plan must systematically identify policies, procedures, business terms and best practices, and a paper trail needs to be created to document the information in an accessible repository rather than the recesses of human minds.


Much has been made of the generational differences between Baby Boomers leaving the workforce and the Millennials who now comprise the majority of it. But there are certain synergies that arise from these differences, such as Millennials’ desire for mentorship and Boomers’ willingness to guide and share. Mentorship can be a crucial tool for constructing a lasting repository of institutional knowledge, because not only does it help to train a new generation with the information and insights of another, but it also helps organizations build a culture and environment of collaboration and communication. In this way, “brain drains” on any scale are less likely to occur, if an organization encourages sharing at every opportunity, and empowers employees to do so.

Information Governance & Data Governance

The terms information governance and data governance have been used for decades, sometimes interchangeably, but with the rapid proliferation of data and its increasing role as a critical driver of operational value and competitive advantage, governance is an imperative in business today. Whether tagged as information governance to reflect a broader scope, or data governance to denote a focus specifically on the management and usage of data, it is fundamental to preserving institutional knowledge.

We’ll use the term data governance, which is generally defined as the formal orchestration of people, processes, and technology to enable an organization to leverage data as an enterprise asset. Organizations need to implement a formal data governance program that allows easy, centralized access to a business glossary, data dictionaries, and data lineage, as well as policies, procedures, and subject matter experts/data owners. It not only ensures consistent understanding across disparate business units, but prevents the loss of institutional knowledge and promotes a strategy of collaboration to unclog the brain drain.

To learn how an integrated data governance program can not only empower your business users and preserve institutional knowledge, but increase data quality and the value of business insights to make business decisions you can trust, download the datasheet below.

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