The scale of layoffs over the past few weeks is unprecedented. The impact on these people who have been shown the door and on the companies that have let them go will linger for years to come. Besides the emotional damage that occurs when people are forced out, there is a tangible cost to companies when knowledge and experience walk out the door. Once that knowledge and experience are gone, no amount of TARP money will bring them back. It may be too late for some companies to prevent this now, but putting measures in place will lessen the blow in future.

One of the few ways to address the problem is to adopt collaborative tools and processes that capture the information companies need to be able to thrive.

Every company in the world relies on the bits of information that live in its employees’ heads. The accounts payable clerk may know a small nugget on how to negotiate the best price with an important vendor. A salesperson may repeat the same pitch when selling to a certain kind of customer that works every time. An engineer may be the only person who knows why software was originally built with ColdFusion. The branch manager may know the precise spot to kick the box compactor when it acts up.

All of these bits of knowledge add up to a vast amount of information that a healthy business requires. But the vast majority of companies do a poor job of gathering this information in a systematic way. When people leave, either by choice or not, what inevitably happens is that the company and its future employees are forced to relearn it all through trial and error. The cycle repeats over and over again. The scale of this problem is huge in the current environment.

So, what does a company do to address the problem?

1. Use tools and process. Companies must have infrastructure in place to encourage, or force, employees to share information. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is at least marginally effective. Anything is better than nothing. How many managers around the world are at this moment digging through abandoned email folders trying to figure what their employees were working on and what they knew.

2. Measure collaboration. Again, it doesn’t matter how, just do something that you think has a good chance of success. You could measure the number of contributions to a knowledge base, the frequency of mentoring sessions, the number of white papers written, whatever. What you measure is less important than doing it consistently over time and measuring improvement. Of course, the metrics are not irrelevant, but don’t wait to choose the perfect ones to track. Start small and simply, and go from there.

3. Reward employees for sharing. If you don’t measure and reward productive behavior, it isn’t going to happen. Collaboration is a bit fuzzy and can’t be measured like the number of phone calls answered per hour, but there are ways.

4. Focus on informal information. This is often where the best information resides. For example, many employees send emails back and forth answering questions and trading best practices. You need a way to harvest these nuggets of information.

None of this stuff is rocket science, but few companies nail this process. We recently spoke with David Coleman of Collaborative Strategies, who said only 10% of his clients focus on “back-end” collaboration. The majority have invested in front-end collaboration technology, like web conferencing, to save money and reduce travel. This is also important but doesn’t help companies retain information when people leave. The current economic conditions put even more pressure on companies to wring as much information as possible from remaining and future employees. The important thing now, if you are a business owner or manager, is to do something before it is too late again.