If You Love Something Let It Go

I’m going out on a limb here to challenge the notion that organizations need to invest heavily in employee engagement efforts.

Blasphemy! You say? Hear me out first.

I’m not saying that companies can simply maintain business as usual and drive people away with horrible leadership and poisoned cultures but I do think there are some assumptions being made about attrition’s relationship to employee unhappiness. I think too that the issue has become very big business for some because as we know, fear sells.

So here’s my basic assertion:

What may behind talent loss could be less about organizational inadequacies and more about the lure of new opportunity.

Human-beings are mobile creatures. Since the moment we stood on two legs on the plains of Africa we took off and conquered the globe. We went to the moon, not because it was easy, as President Kennedy said but because it was hard. We like the challenge, we need the challenge. Movement leads to new experiences which help us grow. It’s in our DNA. In the Industrial Era people stayed put because they had to; geographic-based work, home, family, and community were all in walking and eventually driving distance. But today work is everywhere, one’s peers are a click away, and your community is a blend of physical and virtual. Technology has given us new legs and we’re using them.

In the face of this ever growing fluidity of talent it seems futile for organizations to try to plug the damn. We can’t manage talent just like we can’t manage knowledge. People and their knowledge need to move to have value. So rather than strive solely for containing, we must also invest in better ways to harness the power in the flow.

What happens if organizations focus on the realities of attrition rather than just on fighting it? What if more time, money and energy were put behind better internal systems (human and technical), Systems that capture employee work products and processes, and aid new workers in quickly picking up where work was left off? Some of these things are already percolating today such Personal Knowledge Management skills, social technology adoption, the practice of Working Out Loud, and the recognition and support of 70:20:10 frameworks vs. training-centric models. I ultimately believe these approaches will need to be the rule rather than the exception as organizations will have to be more porous to survive.

Mobile is not about a device, it’s the new reality as what was old is new again. And technology continues to do what technology has always done – extend and expand our human ability and desire.

Residue Not Retention as a Strategy

Two relatively recent tweets helped formulate my thinking about our mobile workforce.

The first a vision, the second a reality.

“The firm of the future may be ten million people working together for ten minutes”@EskoKilpi
“Hans: It would be ridiculous for my company to invest in me, where I expect to change job every few years” – @shackletonjones (referencing a speaker’s quote at #LEARN12)

Mobile is an activity, not a technology. We hear much that the average worker will have numerous jobs in his/her life. The number varies depending on the estimator but nobody seems surprised anymore that the number is not 2. Some employees are flying out the door because working in their current company is a fate worse than death but others move on because of a lack of opportunity or bad fit of skills to organization need – not always a harsh criticism of the organization then. The bottom line is that 2 years not 20 is the new normal.
So lets be honest employers, your people are leaving you or you’re leaving them. Lets not kid ourselves anymore, it’s a revolving door and its only going to continue. No sense in fighting it and desperately trying to hang on with grandiose (and expensive) retention strategies… but then again don’t just throw up your hands on trying to “engage” them.  Be human, be compassionate, be fair, compensate accordingly, grant the time deserved to do good work, make it meaningful, give them a say, and hand out “atta boy’s” like candy at Halloween. Do this not because you are trying to get them to stay but in the name of sincere appreciation for what they do.  In the end your employee may stick around but even when they don’t, they won’t exit with a slew of brand destroying tweets either (It’s better to have loved and lost…).


As employees continue to pass through like vapor, employers must shift thinking from retention strategies alone to ones that embraces expected attrition. Workers are fluid like the knowledge they consume and expel. You won’t hold them for long but what organizations need to do is hang on to their residue.  This residue being the rich artifacts of their time in the organization. I am not talking work product so much as work process; the wiki’s they contributed to, the blog posts and comments they made, the quick collaborations and Q&As in micro-blog tools, and the bookmarked (tagged) content. 

As they exit, others enter and the give-n-take cycle begins again. This is where the energy and time should be put. T&D needs to beat their swords (of classes and courses) into ploughshares (for carving out rows and rows of connections). T&D needs to show workers how to plant the seeds and reap the fruits that fuel their labor. HR needs to orient and on-board by introducing employees to a rich culture that invites their contribution. 

T&D should be modeling, encouraging, and sharing Personal Knowledge Management (PKM)  approaches with employees and demonstrating the value of narrating one’s work. PKM should be the default approach for all but especially the increasing transient workforce we see today; Make it unavoidable and easy.

Organizations can’t stop the transition of employees any more than mankind can stop the sun from rising or the wind from blowing. Mankind has transitioned to embrace and leverage this continual motion. It’s a shift for organizations like the shift in energy policy we see today, as nations turn to solar and wind. This type of force strikes and continues on; unconstrained, it briefly turns the blade or fills the cell. The energy though is captured with ample, efficient, and strategically placed tools. This energy is used and then replenished again and again through movement. Organizations too must focus on capturing for brief moments the force of people, as they and their knowledge is in constant motion.