Author’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews I have conducted in research started after I published As Senior IT Workers Retire, Will IT Expertise Also Disappear? in this blog. The first interview was An Insurance Company CIO Talks About “Baby Boomer IT Brain Drain”. The second interview was The IT Director in a Large Manufacturing Company Discusses “Baby Boomer Brain Drain”.
Recently I interviewed “Oscar” (not his real name) about how his company is handling the pending retirement of senior IT staff, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “baby boomer brain drain.”
Oscar is the CIO in a large multicompany financial services and specialty investments company. The company is international and has a mix of custom legacy Cobol based mainframe systems as well as examples of many other more contemporary architectures. “We have one of just about everything,” he says.
Some systems are maintained within the company’s own facilities, some are outsourced to non-U.S. based companies, and at least one is maintained in India by employees directly hired by Oscar’s company.
Issues of demographics and the impact of an aging population are nothing new to Oscar. A significant number of the investment vehicles managed by his company are retirement related. The relationship between demographics and company finances is well understood.
According to Oscar, shifting demographics is an issue that all parts of a business needs to address. “This is not just an IT issue, this hits all parts of a company,” he says.
Oscar does not see an IT related “baby boomer brain drain” as a serious concern right now; it’s just one of many concerns a company this size has. IT’s main concern in hiring, maintaining, and building its work force, he says.
The need for hiring varies from facility to facility and from region to region. “At one of our U.S. facilities,” he says, “we have very little turnover. It’s a mainframe facility running many older Cobol programs. Its workforce does in fact skew older and we have found that the work force has resisted re-architecting and re-training in the past.”
I asked him if he was concerned about what would happen when people at this facility started to retire. “We have to deal with turnover every day,” he responded. “Attrition always forces you to deal with knowledge transfer.”
I asked him about what he would do to attract Cobol expertise given that that is not an area that many younger folks are learning. He answered, “I don’t think that’s as much of an issue as you think. I know I can get well trained Cobol programmers in India.”
Oscar also expressed a belief that, if a replacement market really were to develop for Cobol programmers, we would see even younger professionals seeing Cobol knowledge as one more area of expertise to learn.
Oscar then discussed what his main staffing concern was. “I know I can find coders and contract programmers, either here or overseas. What I don’t have as much luck finding, — and I keep up with what’s coming out of colleges — are people that combine technical, business knowledge relevant to our industry, and project management skills. That’s what I really need.”
Comments and Conclusions
The level at which Oscar operates and the scale of his company (large) help him to put IT workforce planning into perspective. I know Oscar — he is a former client — as a “no-nonsense” manager who speaks plainly and directly.
Several things stand out based on this interview with Oscar in combination with information gleaned from my previous interviews and research:
- Employee populations constantly change.
- Changing demographics is an issue that all the parts of a company need to address, not just IT.
- Retirement is only one of the many forms of “attrition” that a company needs to consider in its overall succession planning and attrition management processes.
- Retirements are different from job-hopping related attrition in that they can generally be anticipated.
- Planning ahead for alternative staff sourcing strategies is a rational response to inevitable change.
- Knowledge transfer from those who leave to those who stay is an across the board concern, not just one that arises in connection with retirees.
Returning to the issue that first stimulated me to follow this line of inquiry – the potential role for systems such as blogs and wikis in facilitating knowledge transfer by an anticipated increase in the number of baby boomer IT staff retirements – I believe now that the focus should be put into the larger perspective of overall staffing change. Baby Boomer retirements will affect all departments, not just IT. Plus, companies face the constant need to address planned – and unplanned – staff departures.
All of this leads to what is probably seems to some an obvious conclusion: companies that already do a good job of sharing and transferring knowledge and expertise among staff members should be better off in managing changes in their workforce.
Does this mean that companies that have already invested in enterprise level “knowledge management” and “document management” solutions are better able to weather the changes brought about by staff transitions?
The answer to this question is “maybe.” In some instances “knowledge management” equates to document management. The classic concept of a document oriented management and retrieval system bears little resemblance to the real relationship-based communications that people employ on a day to day basis to get the information they need to do their job, even when very powerful search functions are added to the system.
In other words, if when a knowledge management system is implemented and equal attention is not placed on the relationships and communications associated with the people who created and use the information contained in those documents, the system will under-perform and will not be seen as a critical work tool. (I discuss related points in more detail in How Can You Communicate the Corporate Benefits of Enterprise 2.0 Network Effects?.)
This may be especially true in cases where rapid change is the norm (say, with technology, markets, competitors, etc.) where formal knowledge capture and retrieval systems are constantly going out of date and lose attention once the true costs of maintenance are discovered.
Even in companies that have invested heavily in specialized intranet portals, a small cadre of individuals may still be responsible for the maintenance of the web pages. It has only been the coming of blogs and wikis that web based publishing has been democratized and been converted into an interactive channel.
When blogs and wikis are combined with instant messaging and the content, sharing, and relationship management functionality of other Web 2.0 technologies (such as tagging and RSS syndication) our ability significantly improves to make the sharing of knowledge and expertise a “Standard Operating Procedure” within companies. Knowledge becomes something you no longer manage, it becomes something you create, share, and act on as a standard part of your job.
- Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. is a technology management consultant located in Alexandria, Virginia. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luis Suarez has blogged on a related topi here: http://www.elsua.net/2006/08/29/lost-where-did-our-knowledge-go-and-how-social-software-can-help-bring-it-back/