In any firm, the loss of key staff is disruptive.

This is especially true in engineering, where individual team members possess knowledge and insights which are specific to projects, clients, or areas of specialisation. When they leave or are assigned elsewhere, that knowledge must be retained, as must client relationships.

That raises questions about what how knowledge can be retained even as project team compositions change.

Adam Shapley, senior regional director of Hays Engineering (the engineering arm of recruitment specialist Hays); and Andrew Maher, chief digital officer at multi-national engineering consultancy Aurecon have insights into this field.

Shapley says the departure of workers can be difficult, especially for smaller firms. If not managed well, this can result in project knowledge and client relationships being lost. Particularly frustrating is seeing workers, knowledge and relationships move to competitors after years of investment in training and development.

In particular, Shapley says this causes problems when projects are near completion. Whilst new people can be brought on board, bringing them up to speed takes time.

“Engineering firms often have a high level of dependence on a small number of key staff members when working on projects,” he said.

“These key staff members know the project and client inside out, so their loss has a huge impact on the ease of delivery and the relationship with the client. Other staff members need to take on more work to get the project completed on time and quickly get up to speed with the client. Stress levels often rise and management needs to do what they can to support their staff and ensure all necessary knowledge is quickly passed from the departing employee to the rest of the team.

“Open and honest communication is essential.”

Speaking from a viewpoint of larger firms, Maher says the issue is pressing in the current climate as Australia is undergoing a road and rail building boom and people are moving around.

He says engineering firms face challenges because of the project-based nature of their work. The most significant issues occur not when individuals move on but when entire teams are demobilised and scaled back up as projects are put on hold and restarted.

“Projects start and sometimes they stop,” Maher said. “Sometimes they go on hold for a while.

“I’ve done some research in the past about projects and lessons learned on projects. One of the key things is not individuals who leave projects, but when a whole team is demobilised and they go off and do different things. All of a sudden, the project comes back on and those people might be working on other projects. You might have to mobilise a different set of people and transfer that information across.

“That poses more of a threat than individuals leaving. But it’s the same sort of thing; that is a loss of key knowledge.”

Speaking about cases where individuals leave, Shapley says action can be taken both on an ongoing basis and after someone has given notice.

In terms of the former, he says succession planning is critical. It is important, Shapley said, to have a robust plan which identifies those who are one or two steps away from key roles. Once these people have been identified, their skills can be honed and they can be upskilled in order to be ready to step up should the need arises.

Once this is done, Shapley says workers in general and especially those identified as future leaders should be mentored. Crucial to this is client visits to ensure that important clients have relationships with more than one staff member. It also helps to ensure that informal knowledge which is specific to projects or clients is retained. This could include, for example, understanding how and why particular clients like to work in certain ways.

Third, an ongoing retention strategy is critical. This involves making sure front line managers are motivating their team, managing performance and setting goals; building relationships with workers; putting career paths in place and delivering ongoing training and development.

When someone gives notice, Shapley says several strategies can be employed.

Whilst counter offers rarely work, it may be possible to persuade the resigning worker to extend their tenure by one or two weeks. This provides more time to manage the transition. In a hopeful scenario, it may be possible to secure a replacement in time for a short handover.

Next, it is important to look at your succession plan and see who is ready to step up. Even if no one in-house is ready to assume that role permanently, you may have people who can stand in until an ongoing replacement can be found.

Finally, it can be worth considering a professional temp. Often, Shapley said, professional temporary candidates with high skill levels can be found to fill even specialist roles. Whilst they may not have immediate client knowledge, these people are accustomed to coming into projects which are part-way through and hitting the ground running until permanent appointments is made.

Maher says Aurecon employs specific strategies when it comes to ensuring a line of succession.

First, the firm maintains a system of knowledge sharing within individual disciplines. In this regard, it groups its people into specific skill areas (such as road engineering, traffic specialists, and structural engineering) to form a community of practice for each skill area. Each community has a team leader as well as others who assume responsibility for different aspects of how the community operates such as technical training or the communication of critical knowledge.

The objective, he says, is to spread knowledge, learnings and experience around the community. Not only does this spread ideas and best practice strategies around the company, it also reduces the firm’s exposure to the loss of knowledge in the event that individual staff members move on.

Another area involves technology. On this score, Aurecon maintains ‘digital project spaces’ through which project team members are able to gain a narrative about each project. As well as basic information such as the client brief, what the project is about, who the client is, where it is located and who the main team members are, this can be used to view specific documents being worked on. On large projects, the firm maintains built-in document workflows.

Rather than relying on unwieldly email chains, meanwhile, Aurecon has areas where people can conduct recorded conversations about projects. This helps to capture and retain project communication as it happens.

All this, Maher says, enables people to get up to speed when they join on as new project team members.

Finally, as a global practice, the firm has standardised how it operates and the tools being used across its global operations. This helps ensure team members from different countries can collaborate on projects harmoniously. It also affords flexibility to introduce new team members from other countries who have expertise in particular areas.

Around Australia, knowledge retention on key projects is a challenge for engineering firms.

With proactive strategies, much can be done to ensure key learnings are retained and expanded even as project team compositions change.