With employees taking advantage of more fluid careers, organisations need to have plans in place to address the constant flux occurring within the workplace. One approach is ‘skills assurance’, but what is skills assurance, why is it important and how can businesses achieve it?

For many organisations the knowledge within their workforce is what gives them their competitive advantage. Most invest heavily to ensure they have the most skilled, dedicated and suitable people in place, and protecting this investment commonly comes down to improving engagement levels and retention to prevent knowledge departing the business. Yet, despite the most fervent efforts made by some organisation, employee departure is an inevitability all businesses must contend with. The bigger question to be addressed therefore is: how do you retain the knowledge held by key employees, even if that individual decides to leave?

Much of the literature on this topic assumes this is a question primarily for longstanding organisations who have an impressive percentage of ‘seasoned’ workers, and those who have worked in a specific company for many years. But while the so-called demographic timebomb is certainly one area of concern, it’s not the only one – even if attempts to transfer knowledge from older workers to the new generation are successful, the rate of employee churn is becoming an increasing concern for many organisations, as we witness the changing attitudes of a mixed generational workforce.

Based on current estimates, many millennial workers, for example, move swiftly between jobs, with an average tenure of two to three years. There is a widely held belief that it is only the knowledge of the long term, highly experienced and enduring staff members that needs to be captured. But the reality is that even an employee who remains within a business as little as two years may hold highly specialist knowledge that is imperative for an organisation to run. If they then leave, what provisions are in place to transfer this specialist knowledge and embed it securely within the business? As a result, organisations need to be proactive in ensuring that the levels of experience and specialist knowledge that will be accrued by individuals in this time, is somehow managed and kept within the business. This is what skills assurance looks to address, by introducing formal practices and approaches to capture the information core to business operations.

Part of the solution to this conundrum will come down to company culture and how different teams/departments/individuals work together. Is work completed in a silo way? Or do employees regularly collaborate on projects and share their expertise and knowledge in an organic way? If it’s the first scenario, the most common and effective way to capture key knowledge is to do this formally i.e. document it in some format. If it’s the latter, then while documentation of pertinent information will still be a useful approach, the chances of someone else within the business being able to fill in certain knowledge gaps will be much higher, making documentation less essential.

Another element of successful skills assurance may be the degree to which mentoring is utilised in an organisation. Again, while viewed as being particularly pertinent for organisations with a large senior workforce, mentoring also has an important part to play for those with a younger set of employees. Regardless of demographics, mentoring is an excellent way for skilled individuals to share their insights, expertise and knowledge with those around them, and this can also present an ideal way to keep information within the business.

In addition to the above, which are relatively informal approaches to knowledge transference, organisations are also starting to recognise the need for formal succession planning, and skills assurance activities to enable knowledge to be retained. Such activates need to be well planned, and strategically minded, as there is little point in obtaining all information from a departing employee if much of it will then become irrelevant for the future business direction. Ensuring these are aligned with the business vision, direction and strategy will ensure it does not result in wasted effort.

Embracing the opportunities when skills assurance doesn’t happen

Despite all efforts to the contrary, there will be times when an employee’s departure is so sudden or poorly prepared for that the knowledge transfer isn’t possible. While this may cause some frustration in the short term, it also presents an enviable opportunity for an organisation, project or department to do something different.

Without the constraints of ‘what has been done before’ it is far easier to think of a new way to approach a situation or resolve an issue, especially if the departing individual is replaced by someone who was brought on-board for their fresh perspective and ideas. While the temptation to unearth the existing approach may be powerful, it is arguably better for a brand new approach to be applied that utilises the full expertise of the individual taking on a role, than trying to do what has been done in a half-hearted way.

Embracing the opportunities that unexpected knowledge gaps create, can be an inadvertent formula for innovation and growth that cannot be achieved within the current confines of ‘normal working practice’.

As highlighted above, skills assurance is an issue that all organisations, regardless of demographics, maturity or sector need to be thinking about. Maintaining the competitive edge over your competitors means ensuring you have a highly skilled workforce that can continue to operate even if a key employee leaves, and planning for this eventuality is the only way to make sure this can happen.

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