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

The IT Director in a Large Manufacturing Company Discusses "Baby Boomer Brain Drain"

The IT Director in a Large Manufacturing Company Discusses "Baby Boomer Brain Drain"

By Dennis D. McDonald


Last week I interviewed “Ferris” (not his real name) about how his company is handling the pending retirement of senior IT staff.

Ferris is the IT Director in a large manufacturing company. Ferris’ company doesn’t have the mix of custom legacy Cobol and Assembler based mainframe systems that Boris the Insurance Company CIO has.

Ferris’ company runs on SAP. Their “legacy” systems consist of Lotus Notes and other applications. They are now moving to a consolidated Microsoft architecture.

Ferris’ IT department employs about 150 people throughout the company.

The Interview

Ferris recently asked his HR department, “how many people in the IT department will be retiring in 5 years?” HR pressed him on the purpose of his question and mentioned concerns about age discrimination. At the time of our interview, Ferris had not heard back from HR so he could not say exactly what the effects of “baby boomer brain drain” would be on his IT department.

Ferris’ believes that his operation does offer opportunities for technical challenge and growth for his staff. He sees project management as one way to support that growth. Ferris does say a potential problem does exist, however, due to the maturity of the work force. “There are a limited number of slots at the top of the pyramid,” he notes, followed by “and there is a limit to the position growth possible for staff moving laterally.”

Even though his staff is graying, and even though he is able to offer challenges, he does see issues with continued growth of mid level managers (e.g., can he keep them around long enough to take over?) and with the potential “holes” that will be left when the older senior staff retire.

We talked about documentation. Ferris has a public blog of his own. He understands the working of such systems as a user and as a developer. “Geeks don’t like to document,” he says, but he realizes its importance. He says, “People who don’t focus on documentation are too focused on the task at hand and not on the bigger picture.”

He does state that wikis have been introduced and he is also introducing internal blogs in the IT department with the goal of using them for project and status reporting.

He states that they are developing the blogging system themselves as an internal project. I asked him why he wasn’t purchasing an already available system. He answered that they have the ability to do it and as a new project it will provide people with challenges and project management experience.

Ferris  agrees that willingness to generate documentation and practice collaborative behavior should be included in performance reviews. He sees the need to support more collaboration. “In an IT department of 150 people there will always be writers and there will always be readers. We also need to make it easier for people to communicate, for example, to enable department staff located in remote locations to work with other members of the team.”


Ferris does face issues with a “graying” IT work force. Mass retirements are not his main concern right now. He is more concerned about offering job growth opportunities to mid level staff. He is secondarily concerned with the departure of baby boomer staff in a few years. He is researching the issue in order to understand the magnitude of the situation.

His discussion of the reluctance of technical staff to provide documentation appears related more to a general reluctance to document than to any concerted effort on the part of individual staff members to protect intellectual or operational fiefdoms. The systems his department supports to a great extent are adaptations of commercially available off the shelf systems. He may therefore not appear to face the shortage of staff with special skills as reported by Boris.

As happened when I spoke with Boris, my discussion with Ferris about “baby boomer brain drain” revealed issues related to succession planning, staff growth opportunities, willingness to embrace innovation, and relevance (or lack of relevance) of collaborative social networking applications such as blogging.

Ferris makes a connection between blogging and project management.  While others have expressed some misgivings about the utility of blogs in a project management environment, the potential benefits of blogs to support (and provide a documented record of) project related communication and collaboration should not be underestimated.

One effect of blogs is that the number of “brains and eyeballs” that come into contact with a given problem or opportunity has the potential for being significantly expanded beyond the reach of an employee’s immediate acquaintances. The is one of the “network effects” of Web 2.0 and social networking software that is potentially so valuable within the enterprise.

For “network effects” to “kick in,” the network must reach a certain size and level of activity that will differ from company to company. Here on the public web, network effects can arise based partly on the fact that, potentially, millions of people around the world can read about, comment on, tag, podcast about, create instant messages about, rank and rate, and share via blog-embedded and emailed links information about the same target content.

Within the enterprise’s firewall the opportunities for network effects to occur will, numerically at least, be more limited. This should be balanced against the likelihood that enterprise level blogging about projects and other activities will be more related given potential for staff to be working towards common goals even when distributed geographically.

Still, in order  to maximize the likelihood of positive network effects occurring within the firewall, one requirement Ferris might already be incorporating into the design goals for his IT department’s blogging software could be extensibility for use by business people and other non-IT staff, especially in situations where both IT and business staff are teaming on projects of various types, not just software development projects that proceed through a formal system development life cycle process.

How to Accelerate Enterprise Adoption of Web 2.0 Network Effects

An Insurance Company CIO Talks About the "Baby Boomer IT Brain Drain"