Not long ago, I blogged about the loss of institutional knowledge as a result of the first wave of the baby boom generation beginning to retire, and the need to begin some sort of knowledge retention program. I was sitting in a meeting the other day when CIOs from around the country began to talk about their legacy systems and how they cannot seem to get funding to replace them. In the same breath, they go on to say that they are dependent on a few select individuals to keep things running, who know the ins and outs of the systems. Then, they mention that these few with the inside knowledge are nearing or are eligible for retirement. I frankly can’t understand why they were not in tears about this except for the fact that THEY (the CIOs) are at or about retirement age themselves, and when things go to heck in a hand basket—they will be out of there as well!
Folks, this is a real crisis that is about to happen and most people are lackadaisical about it. I often hear people say that pandemic flu is not an if but a when, and I am here to tell you that the retirement of the baby boom generation is a guarantee!
This is a phenomenon that is not just going to affect IT but the ENTIRE organization from top to bottom — executive suite down to the mailroom. This means that for those of you with aging legacy systems, not only will you be losing your support — you will most likely be losing your subject matter experts around the same time. Now are you worried? No? Let me go on then.
The next time you are sitting in a meeting, look around and see who is eligible or nearly eligible for retirement. I recently attended a meeting in which only three of us out of 16 people attending, had more than 10 years to retirement. The rest had five years or less, and many were eligible already and were hanging around until their health gave out or someone POed them bad enough to make them walk.
For those of you who think that this is a normal process of evolution for an organization, let me correct that for you. This will be one of the first times in modern society where organizations begin to lose people in large clumps. In fact, some organizations already have entire units or departments that could walk out the door tomorrow! Couple this with the "let's continue to try to get blood out of a turnip" philosophy of “doing more with less” and we have further increased our risk. We now have more people with more levels of responsibility than we have ever had in the past. People are doing jobs that used to be separated into two or more positions. And if you say that is a result of technology — I say bah! It is a result of downsizing, and management allowing for poorer quality of goods and services from their organizations. Most of the jobs that have been downsized due to technology have already done so. The remaining jobs are generally critical to the organization.
For those of you in your late 30s or early to mid 40s, realize that it will probably be YOU who is left holding the bag when the exodus begins to occur. If this doesn’t inspire you to begin making a business case for knowledge retention, I don’t know what will.
Of course, even if you are duly inspired, it is very possible that your business case will fall upon deaf ears. For some reason, society seems to like to stick its collective heads in the sand until things reach a crisis. Unfortunately, this probably describes your management as well.
However, if you choose to be proactive, there are a few strategies you can take that might help alleviate the situation. Here are a few suggestions:
Scare the living daylights out of them. Them being management, particularly your finance people. When asking for funding to replace legacy systems, you need to tee this up like you did for Y2K. You know how to do it. Get some figures from HR regarding the number of people in your organization that will be eligible for retirement in three, five, and 10 years—by department, if you can—and then let the numbers start talking. While you're at it, talk about compliancy in the same breath.
There is no better way to retain legacy knowledge than to create new systems with the input of those folks carrying around the institutional knowledge. Make sure your user representatives on development teams have at least one person who is nearing retirement.
The next time a position is freed up in your unit; think real hard about spreading the duties of that position to others and hiring someone expressly to begin documentation of all your systems. That includes the documentation that is sitting on that shelf that no one has bothered to update for 15 years because everyone has been so busy.
Be a trend setter. Instead of scaring upper management, as suggested above, actually ask for an additional position expressly for documentation purposes.
Start cross training your staff. Combine your documentation and cross-training efforts into your pandemic preparation and COOP plans. Use this as a way to sell the idea to management. If you have two people thinking about retiring, think about creative ways of keeping them on the payroll for a period of time while you make sure you can do some thorough knowledge transfer. Some options for retiring workers might be working part-time, job-sharing, being available on an on-call basis, or providing a small consultancy period while they provide documentation.Begin mentoring programs. In your areas of control, set up a program in which a senior staff member begins the formal process of passing knowledge on to juniors.
Suggest to management that they look into an organization wide knowledge harvesting program: http://www.knowledgeharvesting.org/default.htm
Put an ITIL, CMM, or similar framework into place. These programs demand good documentation.
Do all of the above.
Knowledge drain is an issue that organizations need to deal with now. By the time the baby boom generation reaches the traditional retirement age of 65, they will represent 20 percent of the U.S. population. That will be in 2011. However, more than half of the new recipients of Social Security benefits tend to opt to collect starting at age 62, and close to 70 percent do so before age 65. If that is the case, we are looking at 2008 as a starting year for the exodus. And yes I know that people are tending to work longer; however, wanting to, needing to, and physically being able to continue are entirely different matters. Trusting that the transition will be smoother than we think is just another example of trying to avoid the issue.
I believe this is an issue that should be treated much like Y2K, and risk assessments should begin as soon as possible. This is particularly so if you have aging legacy systems still in production and no plan for replacement. If your organization is ignoring it, sound the alarm — and at least begin to plan for it for yourselves.