Manufacturing brain drain: is your business knowledge at risk?

Posted on 17 Feb 2022 by The Manufacturer

Thanks to the advent of technology, an increasingly transient workforce, and a global pandemic, the question of how to mitigate corporate brain drain is a hot topic on the manufacturing agenda.

On the face of it, the UK’s industrial sector continues to perform strongly, boasting a collective workforce of 2.7 million people, and having seen more than 70 years of sustained growth. But with the Great Resignation threatening an en masse loss of company expert knowledge, we’re now witnessing an undeniable step change as manufacturing leaders seek out new and innovative ways to connect learners with industry subject matter expertise.

But why is this access to tacit expertise so critical in modern-day manufacturing?

It’s a question best answered by casting our minds back just one generation. The principles that an engineer or mechanic learned in their initial training in the 70s and 80s would likely have served them for the duration of their career. Today, though, with automation and continual software updates, that’s no longer the case. The upshot? We need to enable subject matter experts (SMEs) to continually share their knowledge and make it accessible to learners at the point of need – and irrespective of whether they’re on working a production line, managing a factory floor, or heading up supply chain operations.

What we know for certain is that the training course cannot cater to the manufacturing worker’s demand for instant knowledge in the flow of work. So how can manufacturing organisations solve the double conundrum of enabling workers to keep pace with the industry’s rapid knowledge change, while also supporting knowledge retention?

Here’s three ways that manufacturing organisations can connect learning with productivity to drive performance and protect against corporate brain drain:

1) Create a culture of knowledge-sharing

Creating a culture whereby SMEs are actively encouraged to share their knowledge on a regular basis is undeniably the best way to beat brain drain. Of course, building this culture will take time, as well as plenty of communication and endorsement from senior leadership. Company experts who embrace this, however, and who begin to habitually share their knowledge for the benefit of learners should be recognised – and even rewarded.

Nurturing these positive behaviours will be key to creating an all-important ‘follow the leader’ effect. The goal here is to encourage other SMEs to follow suit so that knowledge-sharing becomes the norm, not the exception. You want your SMEs to view it as an integral part of their job role, much like running a quality control check or assembling a production line.  Achieve this, and your organisation will be well on its way to building its corporate knowledge bank – a thriving tech-enabled learning hub that employees can tap into and access knowledge right when they need it.

2) Make knowledge accessible

Of course, it’s no use having all that expertise and tacit know-how sitting in a digital vault unless employees can access it for the purpose of learning, compliance, and performance. And in the manufacturing industry, where knowledge is constantly changing, that expertise need not only be accessible, but hyper-searchable.

Think of it this way: when we need the answer to a problem in our consumer lives, we instinctively turn to YouTube and Google. It’s an ingrained habit because it’s a quick and easy way to get the exact information we need, right when we need it. What we’re talking about here is the arrival of Google-like learning in the corporate world of L&D. This is how we make knowledge instantly available, and instantly applicable in the flow of work.

The added bonus here – and it’s a big one – is that this knowledge is not only made available to manufacturing employees, it remains forever accessible to support long-term safety compliance, productivity, and quality standards. That’s right, this knowledge will continue to drive people and business performance long after its SME creator has left the company. You may lose the expert, but you won’t lose their invaluable tacit know-how. That expertise remains in the corporate knowledge bank, regardless – and it spells the end of business knowledge brain drain.

3) Enable learners to become experts

Perhaps the biggest business advantage here, though, is that in-flow, on the job learning also creates a self-feeding cycle. It works like this: manufacturing workers who regularly engage with, and share, valuable learning content will gradually develop their own expertise to a point where they themselves become company SMEs. This is career development at its finest – and it’s an incredibly powerful engine that not only future-proofs performance, but provides long-term cost-savings via improved retention and reduced ongoing recruitment.

The ultimate goal here is to empower people to learn every day. It’s about taking the emphasis off training, and shifting the focus to learning in the flow of work. Train less, learn more – and it’s a concept that aligns perfectly with the challenges that today’s manufacturing companies are experiencing.

About the author

Steve Dineen is the Founder & President of Fuse – the enterprise learning and knowledge platform that ignites performance through active engagement. Steve is also the Founder of FuseSchool – an educational platform that delivers GCSE-grade education to 10+ million learners around the world every year, for free.