It was great to see so many people at our last Hub meeting on 13 September 2022 and even better to hear the debate generated by Peter McCarthy’s insightful presentation on a key issue facing many organisations; a knowledge exodus that is happening now but is sometimes not being noticed. When it is being noticed, organisations are often unsure how to react – partly due to the managerial level where it is being noticed and how that gets reported through the organisation’s hierarchy. 

The six questions posed by Peter McCarthy at the start of the session were thought provoking and pointed to this potential problem:

  • What is your organisation’s annual turnover?
  • What is your organisation’s annual profitability?
  • How many people have left your organisation in the lasty year?
  • How many have joined your organisation in the last year?
  • What is the cost of these leavers and starters?
  • What has been your biggest lost opportunity?

Key knowledge and experience

The line managers, who are the first to notice when a key member of staff leaves, may not know the answers to these questions. As a result, they may not identify that their biggest lost opportunity was to retain the key knowledge and experience of the person who has left. The statistics, even if they are well known, only tell half of the story. 1 in 5 workers are leaving their jobs for a variety of reasons. There are currently 1.3 million vacancies in the UK so some people may ask – why does knowledge exodus matter?

The answer lies within the 5% of workers who have critical knowledge of systems, machines, processes and the hidden nuances that apply to most organisations – the things we all take for granted that keep things running smoothly or avoid us having to use external resources to fix a problem when something goes wrong. We only notice these problems when the person who knew how to do it is not there anymore. I have heard so many stories over the years about the ripple effect that can occur on an organisation’s productivity when key knowledge is lost.

Voluntary Redundancy

One organisation, several years ago, decided that they should do an exercise “to remove some of the dead wood” – it was interesting how that phrase went unchallenged and how the removal of the “dead wood” was accepted as a strategic objective. A generous offer of voluntary redundancy was announced and a large number of experienced staff, mostly who were in middle manager roles, applied and left with rather broad grins on their faces. These grins became even wider a few weeks later when some were rehired on contracts because they had a unique knowledge of the nuances of certain processes – a knowledge that more senior managers were unaware of until customer complaint letters started reaching their desks.     

Despite this, talk about the need to “have a clear out” continued and remains as an accepted dialogue in many organisations today. The knowledge exodus poses three questions:

  • Do we value peoples’ knowledge and experience enough?
  • Do we write people off as “dead wood” too casually?
  • What is our mechanism to capture the knowledge and experience of the 5%?


The discussion pointed to a number of areas where innovative solutions might address these questions. The participants reflected on the use of neuroleadership, shadowing, mentoring and succession planning as methods to ensure knowledge is retained. However, as some people pointed out, there is a critical need to get buy-in from senior leaders that this is a problem that needs addressing. As senior managers are trying to spin so many plates at the same time, only tangible benefits will get the issue on an executive team’s agenda. There is no doubt that robust research is required to identify those tangible benefits.

Quiet Quitting

In the meantime, however, there are persuasive arguments that might help organisations get this message through the chain of command. Most organisations have a risk register. The potential loss of key senior managers will always be on them – this needs to be extended to all levels through middle managers to experienced workers. Succession planning needs to apply to all levels of an organisation and people should be encouraged to multi-task. With proper strategic planning, this should not be beyond most organisations and we need to identify those who are already doing it.

At its heart, however, the answer to overcoming the knowledge exodus is about an organisation’s culture. This has to be a culture that engages everyone by not obsessing over ambition or “passion” but by truly valuing experience, knowledge and a challenge to any current zeitgeist without people being branded as negative or “old fashioned”. It would be interesting to identify how much of the “quiet quitting” issue is related directly to these cultural obsessions.

An unnecessary or unexpected knowledge exodus has affected organisation for many years – in the current climate, it is time to take this issue more seriously and move it higher in our list of priorities.

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