As workers with critical experience retire, companies are turning to digital tools to limit the loss of valuable knowledge.

“If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as effective” was the famed statement of Lew Platt, CEO of Hewlett-Packard. That statement was the rallying cry of knowledge management initiatives that began in the 1990s. Early digital knowledge management platforms may have been overly complex Rube Goldberg machines that never had any prayer of working, but today’s tools are no laughing matter. Not only are they poised to enable companies to realize Platt’s goal, but to wildly exceed it. Yet, these benefits may only be available to managers who are bold and skilled enough to lead differently in a digital age.

“If only we knew what we once knew.”

When President George W. Bush announced a space initiative to launch a manned mission to Mars, a painful reality became quickly evident — NASA would first have to relearn how to conduct a manned mission to the moon. Put simply, the organization had forgotten some of the essential knowledge needed to conduct the mission. Plans had been lost, and essential personnel had since retired or moved on to other organizations.

Similarly, the oil company BP experienced a similar phenomenon as older employees with essential company knowledge began to retire. These “machine whisperers” had deep knowledge developed over decades-long careers about the maintenance of important and expensive equipment — knowledge that was rapidly escaping the organization as these employees left the company.

Digital tools have the potential to reshape the relationship between organizations and retiring employees in two ways. First, when used for collaboration, advanced social media platforms can record all interactions between employees and preserve them for later use. This “digital trace” can be used to preserve knowledge possessed by the employees as they perform their day-to-day work, making this knowledge available to others at a later time even after these employees have left the organization.

For example, the German chemical company BASF discovered that when teams used these social media platforms for collaboration, they experienced less disruption when employees left the team. The knowledge embedded in their previous interactions with team members allowed their replacements to get up to speed far more quickly than was possible otherwise.

Second, digital platforms introduce the possibility of redefining the relationship with retired employees. Retirement need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. Rather than having employees sever ties to the organization completely, companies could begin to offer “emeritus” roles to employees with valuable knowledge that may benefit the company in the future. These emeritus employees with deep organizational knowledge could be available when their knowledge was needed from the retirement location of their choice. They could continue to earn a modest income to augment their retirement and perhaps still gain personal fulfillment by being able to continue to contribute to an organization, even in a reduced capacity.

“If only we could find someone who knows what we need to know.”

Similarly, companies can increasingly reach outside the organization to tap into certain specialized knowledge when needed. The company does not necessarily need to maintain this specialized knowledge within the boundaries of the organization, as long as it can access it when needed. Digital platforms increasingly allow companies to source knowledge only when it is needed.

For example, the platform Work Market allows companies to set up a market consisting of both employees and part-time contractors so that certain skills can be accessed when needed rather than maintained through full-time employees. Similarly, the Top Coder community and the digital innovation platform Innocentive can allow companies to quickly access experts to perform certain tasks or solve particular problems. Interestingly, many of the experts on Innocentive are retired people simply trying to stay fresh and continue to use their skills.

“If only we knew what those people know.”

Digital platforms also allow companies to source knowledge from different types of employees that may be difficult to employ in a more traditional work setting. For example, I argued in a previous post that digital platforms allow companies to better leverage the unique skill sets of 3.5 million people in the United States diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These people often have outstanding attention to detail, an ability that often leads to them being overwhelmed in a traditional work environment. Digital tools allow these people to work in a more controlled environment with fewer of the social cues that may otherwise prove overwhelming. Companies such as SAP and Microsoft have recognized this untapped potential of ASD employees, developing explicit targets for hiring employees with ASD.

How can organizations “know” better?

The challenge of accessing this underutilized talent, however, is not primarily technological but managerial. To tap into the multiple sources of knowledge that digital tools make available requires that companies begin thinking about work differently. Work should be deconstructed from permanent positions and assigned roles to discrete tasks and objectives. Managers will need to learn to identify the skills needed to accomplish particular tasks. They will need to know how and from where to assemble the expertise needed for those tasks, and how long that expertise will be needed. They will need to understand how to communicate the tasks' requirements to those experts and how best to motivate those experts to work together effectively.

Yes, your company can be multiple times more effective if you learn how to use digital tools to tap that knowledge, but it may require you to rethink business as usual in order to leverage the benefits digital tools offer.