The goal seemed simple enough.
A mining firm in northern Canada decided in March 2001 to replace a metal housing on an iron-ore smelter with one made of a lightweight, plastic composite.
It bought the materials. Then, an in-house team formed to create the custom part began searching through company records for the specifications it needed for the job.
But when the specs were found, a critical piece of data was missing.
The mining firm figured it would make a quick call to the company that had designed the smelter. Engineers there, however, came up with the same incomplete set of plans.
Frantic, bosses at the design firm launched what one executive now calls "a forensic investigation" into the whereabouts of "Bob," the individual who had drafted the original specifications. Retired, he was golfing in Florida when finally reached months later. His personal records held the needed numbers.
"They were able to track him down, but that's an exception to the rule," says Kimiz Dalkir, of Fujitsu Consulting in Edison, N.J., who was already developing a knowledge-management system for the mining firm - which she declined to identify more precisely - at the time. Ms. Dalkir says this long and costly exercise brought home to all involved the need to capture knowledge from an employee before she or he leaves.
The mining firm's case is not uncommon. In his autobiography, "Business @ the speed of thought," Bill Gates relates how the retired head of real estate and facilities at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus had to be called at home when blueprints for some buildings couldn't be found.
"Here we were, the largest developer of office space in the Seattle area ... and our entire 'knowledge base' of crucial information was being carried round in the heads of just a few people and in a few stacks of blueprints we didn't even have on file," Mr. Gates wrote.
The issue will be compounded in the years to come as baby boomers exit the workforce. "We're going to lose a critical mass of knowledge," warns Dalkir.
By 2005, baby boomers will be reaching age 60 at the rate of one every seven seconds, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 19 percent of the baby boomers holding executive, administrative, and managerial positions in the private sector are expected to leave by 2008.
The situation looks grim in the public sector, too. By 2005, more than half of the 1.8 million federal employees will be eligible to retire. That includes 71 percent of the senior executive service - the highest-ranking career professionals in the government.
"This will have a profound effect on every facet of economic life," says Hamilton Beazley, organizational-change guru and chairman of the consulting firm Strategic Leadership Group, in Washington, D.C.
While the downturn in the stock market may actually offer some respite, with many baby boomers planning to delay retirement, Mr. Beazley says many of those with flagging portfolios will be more likely to switch jobs than continue in their current positions.
In fact, a recent AARP survey of workers ages 45 to 74 found that 69 percent of those interviewed plan to work in some capacity in their retirement years. But 34 percent said they would work only part time, and in fields that fed some new interest.
"From a company's standpoint it doesn't matter if they've retired or switched to another job, you still lose the knowledge," he says. Beazley, like Dalkir, says it's critical for companies to put in place a system for capturing knowledge so that it doesn't walk out the door when an employee does.
One of the most effective ways to do that is in story form, says Anne Wylie, founder of Wylie Communications in Kansas City.
"We should be developing, telling, and archiving stories every day," says Ms. Wylie, who advises creating a story archive or company chronicle. In light of the pending baby-boomer retirements, a logical starting point would be to interview retirees as they leave.
"That can be a very effective way to make sure you're not losing those stories, that they're not walking out the door," says Wylie.
The key to building a useful archive is to go beyond checklist-type responses to problems, says Carl Frappaolo, co-founder and executive vice president of Delphi Group, a business-and-technology consultancy in Boston. A company must also learn from its senior employees the thought processes that went into their policies and approaches.
"It's not preparing for what you do if you get a flat tire," he says. "It's what do you do if you have a flat tire and there's no jack in your car?"
Mr. Frappaolo recommends videotaping key employees daily to get a sense of who they are and how they think. Through creating a video library, an employee might eventually be able to feed questions into an online system that will trigger the relevant videotaped response.
An important aspect of such systems, says Fujitsu's Dalkir, who also uses video, is the human element - not only what people know, but whom they know - so that a successor can quickly begin building a personal network.
"We want to keep it in the form of a story," she says. "It must be a good story in order for people to learn from it."
So, how does one know what a good story is in this context? For author and company lore researcher Peg Neuhauser, the standard is simple: Younger employees shouldn't think it's boring and feel as if they're being lectured at by arrogant know-it-alls.
"It shouldn't be a one-way message," she notes. "It has to be a dialogue, a bouncing around of ideas." If not, the workplace will appear inflexible, and younger employees will feel unempowered and uninspired.
"I have a feeling that a lot of [the knowledge transfer] might have to be done in the context of work, where you make a conscious effort over the next few years to mix employees of different ages on projects or teams to have them work together," says Ms. Neuhauser. She adds that the goal must be clear, so that the employees learn from one another.
Frappaolo of the Delphi Group agrees, saying one of the most effective ways to convey knowledge to a successor if there's not enough time to harvest and store it electronically is through a mentorship program. At least in using this method, he says, there's a continuity of tacit knowledge.
Beazley, who recently wrote the book "Continuity Management," adds a different dimension. He says the transfer of knowledge should be both vertical and horizontal - from one generation to another as well as among peers.
One example would be the so-called "best practices" model, where a firm identifies high-achieving employees and then has them share their techniques with their peers. That practice, he says, should be accompanied by careful personnel management.
"You have to reward people for sharing information," says Beazley. "For the most part, people want to share their knowledge, but they have to be valued for doing it - recognized and valued."
At the office, as anyplace, knowledge is power. It can be easier to help move a company forward if you're an employee who understands where that company has been.
And in a period of continued cutbacks, it can't hurt to become a little less dispensible.
That's why some workplace experts now encourage workers to extend their information bases far beyond their daily duties, to company lore - including the origins of standard processes and policies and some of the stories of its clients, vendors, and staff.
"It's not [about] hoarding knowledge," says Carol Kinsey Goman, author of "Ghost Story: A Modern Business Fable." "It's being a connector of knowledge, a repository of knowledge who is willing to share it."
To become known as a lore-keeper, experts recommend a few key steps:
Identify key staff who have been with the company for a number of years and persuade them to relate their experiences at the company to you. Ask management to consider inviting back retirees for lunch and lore-telling.
Take notes at retirement parties and service-award functions, or ask permission to videotape them. Stories rich with anecdotes are often related in the speeches at these events.
Hold storytelling meetings. Don't leave it to company leadership to arrange occasional meetings that look at big company developments in the context of its history. Propose such meetings even if you're junior staff, and then record staff input.
Encourage Intranet use. Internal messages that explain staff moves or other new company developments are generally more forthcoming than the announcements that end up in press releases. Postings on a company Intranet can serve as a rolling documentation of company changes.
Conduct Internet searches for reports, articles, and books on your company - there may be more than you imagined. Broaden your research to include a look at your industry from the era in which it was founded. Create a library of such materials at your desk, and make it available to others.