Selecting, Developing, Managing and Retaining Knowledge Workers

Do HR departments have the right strategies to select, develop, manage and retain knowledge workers? As Peter Drucker recently quoted, the new knowledge economy will rely heavily on knowledge workers who are not, as a rule, much better paid than traditional skilled workers but also see themselves as professionals. Knowledge technologists are likely to become the dominant social and perhaps, political force over the next decades. Thus, it is very important to have the right strategies in place to select, develop, manage and retain knowledge workers.
But before we proceed to analyze if HR departments do have these strategies, we need to understand what the term ‘knowledge workers’ means. A knowledge worker is one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace. In a knowledge-driven economy, a knowledge worker is oriented more towards research, analysis and manipulation of the symbols, as in information, rather than the mechanical tools.
These individuals have domain knowledge expertise and may include broadly: architects, finance experts, graphic designers, fashion designers, pharmaceutical scientists, researchers, teachers, and policy analysts, to name but a few. In order to focus on strategically critical knowledge workers, it is necessary to move beyond merely creating a supportive culture or a best place to work. Top innovators understand their worth. These workers are independent and entrepreneurial, for instance like the originators of eBay, Google and Facebook.

To keep such people, it is necessary to make them feel like they are building their own businesses within the larger organization. This can be achieved partly by recognizing their status as thought leaders but it is also important to give them a stake in the new lines of business they develop. The bottom line is that organizations need to view key talent as partners, rather than as employees or “resources”. The balance of power has shifted such that highly skilled innovators need to be seen as partners or they are gone.
In the past, human resources, training, and labor relations managers and specialists performed the administrative function of an organization, such as handling employee benefits questions or recruiting, interviewing, and hiring new staff in accordance with policies established by top management. Their task was to attract, motivate, and retain the most qualified employees and match them to jobs for which they are best suited.
Today the role of human resources workers is more than just managing these tasks, but, increasingly, that of strategic planning in consultation with top executives. They have moved from behind-the-scenes staff work to leading the company in suggesting and changing policies. Many organizations claim to have a commitment to developing their employees and phrases such as “our people are our most valuable assets” are often spotted on motivational posters in companies. In my opinion, however, very few companies embrace a structured approach to training and retention programmes.
HR departments may claim to have several strategies to select, develop, manage and retain employees, but what is important is that the psychological contract, which is vital to building and sustaining a win-win relationship, needs to be reinforced. Research shows that several well-intended training and development initiatives fail to deliver the desired results. In fact, during economic slowdowns the budget which is often the first to be cut back on is the training budget.
Adopting a structured approach to employee training and retention requires a change in mindset at the very top-level of the organization. The entire issue of staff retention needs to be treated in a strategic way and this is where most organizations lack. The first step in the development of an employee retention strategy is identifying the pinch points for the organization, the areas where the company regularly suffers from a high staff turnover and the particular concerns and problems of the targeted staff groups.
It is also important to have a clear understanding of the expectations and aspirations of your employees; only then can you develop the strategies needed to meet some of these aspirations and begin to develop a workplace that is a great place to work and employees who see the company as a good company to work for. A good retention strategy should address issues such as:  support in the workplace, progression, opportunities for development, remuneration, working time, and flexible working. The focus should be on retaining existing talent and keeping the available organizational knowledge intact rather than searching for new talents.
The key to success will be the integration of training and development within the retention strategy. Training and development provides the means of supporting staff to operate effectively and enabling staff to access the opportunities provided by the retention strategy. Levels of remuneration and flexible working will signal the right environment but it is through using training and development as a mechanism to demonstrate investment in employees on an on-going basis that will turn an organizational commitment into a reality.
The techniques and processes that help new hires learn quickly are also the techniques and processes that help retain organizational knowledge. Knowledge sharing techniques such as communities of practice, mentoring, lunch and learn sessions, business process maps, expertise directories of staff are just as useful for retaining organizational knowledge as they are for fast learning by new employees. A good knowledge sharing technique should address questions such as ‘What does it offer me? ’ ‘What does it offer us? ’ ‘What does it offer to the organization? Once these techniques fill the personal and group learning needs of staff, they will also evolve to sharing strategic information. Techniques such as communities of practice can be HR’s role in strategic information management for the organization. The success of an organization in its strategy will be judged ultimately by its success in engaging individuals in development activities, not in simply having them available. The key to success will be how relevant and appropriate the development activity is and how accessible it is to employees.
It requires talent to retain talent. The successful employer of the future will be a keen competitor in the skills market. They will compete for the best recruits but not in terms of purely financial rewards but by offering them the best working experience, one that offers security as well as progression and personal growth. They will focus on retaining the available organizational knowledge and harnessing it to the maximum rather than on hunting for new talents.

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