Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

As Senior IT Workers Retire, Will IT Expertise Also Disappear?

brain.jpgBy Dennis D. McDonald




This paper discusses the pending “boomer brain drain” that will hit IT departments when Baby Boomer professionals begin retiring in a few years. This impact may be especially strong in organizations where older and complex “legacy” systems continue in operation as key elements of the corporate technology infrastructure. The potential roles of social software (e.g., blogs) and “expertise management systems” are discussed as ways to ameliorate some of the potential problems created by these impending retirements.




Once upon a time I helped manage a complex post-merger system consolidation project where two mainframe based systems were being integrated. The client hadn’t done a lot of projects like that and hired outside consultants to help with the project planning, management, and execution.

We found out quickly that a few key client staff members were extremely scarce resources. One was a senior consultant who had been brought back by the client after his retirement. He was, hands-down, THE absolute expert on the target system’s very large and very complex database. I’ll call him “Alex.”

Alex knew where the bodies were buried.  He had been in on the development of all the mainframe system’s precursors, he understood all the data structures, he had intimate knowledge of each and every data table in all its forms, and he understood how each table interacted with all the system’s batch and online processes. When something broke — and invariably something did break — he was the one to call.

He was also the person our project needed for 100% of his time. Alex, inevitably, was a bottleneck on just about every task in the project since he was already working 100% of his time on keeping the the existing system working. He didn’t have time to train other people, and he didn’t have time to prepare special documentation. Still, we muddled through, largely because he put in the extra effort that was needed.


Legacy Systems


I thought about Alex and that project when I read In With The New, by Anthony O’Donnell in the July 12, 2006 Insurance & Technology. O’Donnell provides a good overview of the issues faced by many companies with mainframe-based legacy computer systems. The issues are familiar to any corporate IT executive who asks the big questions about corporate technical architecture, for example:

  • Should we maintain the older systems and keep adding new interfaced systems to provided needed new functionality? Or,
  • Should we replace our legacy systems with a more comprehensive and newer architecture that makes it easier to add new functionality?

These are not simple choices, as O’Donnell’s article points out. As you look at all the companies that are still operating and maintaining “big iron” and COBOL (and other languages) based systems alongside a spaghetti-like combination of more modern client server and network-oriented applications, you’ll understand why IT managers get defensive whenever users complain “Why can’t you move faster!” They probably have a team of “Alex’s” working fast and furious just to to keep things running, so adding even MORE complexity to the mix can be a major headache.

O’Donnell also points out in passing a major underlying issue, the “…declining availability of IT professionals with the necessary skills to maintain legacy systems,” based on retirements and work force shifts.


IT Staff Retirements


This issue of IT staff retirement is emphasized even more strongly in the recently released Boomers Bid Farewell, part of a major report by Computerworld on IT hiring and employment trends. Other good takes on the subject is CIO Magazine’s Beating the Boomer Brain Drain Blues and ComputerWorld’s ‘Perfect Storm’ On Horizon for US Labor Market.

The basic idea of these articles is that departments such as IT need to be prepared for a time when major chunks of their management and technical labor are no longer working.  Part of the solution is intelligent succession planning; this has long been a topic in Human Resources literature. Also getting more attention is the need to transfer the knowledge and expertise from older workers to younger workers through a combination of documentation, training, data extraction from email and other communications, blogging, interviewing, workshops, consulting, and other knowledge transfer initiatives.


The Role of Blogs and Social Software


Shel Israel in the Naked Conversations blog touched on this topic in a May 17, 2006 posting titled Blogging Inside Washington Group International. Here is what Israel says about one intervention being tried at the engineering firm WGI:

Passing generational wisdom—WGI is bracing itself for the retirements of a significant percentage of its existing workforce. These guys are the “Old Joe’s” who have been there, done that and have the wisdom and sagacity aggregated over a lifetime of trials, errors and successes.  Andy talked to me about using an internal blog, to let this generation tell their stories of what they saw and what they did along with how they did it. The blogs, and perhaps podcasts, would serve as a digital history for the company and for the next and future generations of new employees.  This is a wonderful idea.  I have not previously thought of using a blog this way but it is so clearly an idea that is easier to implement than most of the complex engineering projects that is the company’s core competency. Social media is simply a superior way to deliver storytelling and it lasts forever.

This application of blogging is not something I had considered in connection with this “boomer brain drain” phenomenon, but it does make a lot of sense, for a couple of reasons:

  • Blogs are easy to set up and maintain.
  • It’s simple to create and manage multiple discussion treads on related topics.
  • The social interaction that can evolve as a byproduct of group creation and discussion can reinforce learning and inquiry.
  • Indexing and tagging can be as complex or as simple as necessary.
  • Blogs can be combined and integrated as necessary with other tools (e.g., document management, podcasting, calendars, databases, wikis, multimedia, etc.).

On the other hand, blogs don’t manage themselves. There will still be the need for a plan in order to make sure that roles and responsibilities are defined. An important consideration will be to decide what people are responsible for documenting.


Retirees and Expertise Management


This is somewhat related to the topic “expertise management” that I have been researching and writing about. Among those  about to retire, it will be useful to prepare an “expertise map” that lists the topics, systems, and processes that people will be responsible for.

What shape this map takes is to be determined based on circumstances and could range in complexity from a bullet list to a diagram that explicitly describes how each area of expertise relates to the company’s strategic goals, markets, business functions, departmental structure, product lines, machinery, equipment, infrastructure, regions — indeed, whatever makes sense in order to make the soon-ro-be-retiree’s knowledge and expertise accessible by those who will need that information.

In the case of IT retirees — here I’m thinking about my relationship with “Alex” — there would be an obvious need to make sure that both the design and operational details of each system for which the retiree is responsible is described — design assumptions, typical issues and how to address them, thoughts on replacement and/or improvement,  impacts on business processes, management and oversight — the list of suggested topics could be quite long and has to be tailored to fit the organization.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of a blog used in this way as just another form of documentation. A blog can be an important component in the formation and maintenance of social networks of people. In this case, the network would be composed of the soon-to-be-retiree and those who will be taking over; the relationships that develop during the course of developing a “blog knowledge b base” about, say, an important business application and its operation, could be just as important as, if not more important than, the actual documentation generated.


Post-retirement Involvement


Furthermore, when one considers the operation of an expertise management system, the capability could be developed to enable retirees to continue to function as “online experts” after they formally retire from the organization. Retirees, assuming appropriate security safeguards were implemented, could flag themselves as being available for responding to expertise requests as part of the company’s expertise network. In this way, the organization (assuming the appropriate contractual, financial, and legal details could be worked out) could continue to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of retirees even after they formally leave the organization.

In this way, the effects of a pending “boomer brain drain” might be ameliorated. The company would benefit through continued access to years of expertise and wisdom, and the retiree could remain an active contributor to corporate activities.

  • Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. is a technology management consultant located in Alexandria, Virginia. Contact him via email at


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