The experience of the Ageing workforce is leaving the building. What should we do?

“What do we do about the ageing workforce and the experience that walks out the door when they leave for the last time?”

Questions like this have featured in business presentations, and brainstorming sessions for many years. A friend of mine recently noted this as being of concern several decades ago . 

A business unit I was part of a number of years ago, also faced this issue.  We were meeting to come up with a set of objectives for the coming year. What should we do about the impending exit of our most experienced people? Well, for the most part, a line on a presentation was the beginning and end of the discussion. In meetings, when the subject came up, it was often followed by a trailing off of voices talking about increasing the recruitment rate, buddying up the less experienced with veterans, bringing the experts back on contract after they leave, writing down everything they know, or coming up with a training program design to capture and embed their experience.

There was always a lot of talk, but nothing substantive happened.

What value is experience?

When considering this question of what to do? It’s helpful to recall how experience can benefit an organisation. And by experience, we’re talking about valuable, useful experience, not bad experience.

Experienced people often make more good decisions than inexperienced people. What’s really going on is they have been learning while they work, study and participate in life. Their interactions with others and the mistakes they make and witness, build experience, a sense of know-how.

Deliver it so it feels like getting great advice from a trusted friend.

Experienced people anticipate what might happen next. They are sometimes referred to as intuitive or insightful. They know the right questions to ask to get to the root cause of issues. They evaluate options quickly and know the right thing to do, or not do, at the right time. They may show a deep understanding of procedure and process, but know how to apply workarounds when things don’t go as planned. They often know how to avoid or back out of problem situations and when to call for help or escalate.

Experience has a short ‘half-life’. Can’t we ignore it?

While it’s easy to view experience as a most prized and valued possession, there is a strong counterpoint that has become more significant in recent years. It goes like this.

Experience had value in the past because things stayed the same for longer periods of time, so experience could be gained, applied and re-applied. This is not how things are now. The pace of change is fast and this has reduced the ‘half life’1 of experience, so, by the time we’ve become experienced, the world has moved on and the value of that experience has diminished with it.

The right strategy now is to, just do nothing! There is little value in trying to capture experience from a soon-to-be-retiring workforce because it will be irrelevant to the issues of the near future.

The logic of the ‘do nothing’ position is compelling. Many businesses are in change cycles, there is much buzz and activity with digitisation and agile ways of working. Squads are being formed outside of IT teams and scrum masters appointed in marketing, customer service, engineering, plant maintenance and technical operations groups. The office chatter of the IT team, with its daily standups, kanban boards, backlogs, product owners and MVP’s  (minimum viable product), is now becoming the chatter around other teams in the organisation.

Our lifestyles too are digitally enhanced, some might say disrupted, with our discrete devices and social networks of virtual friends. In the near future, mixed reality environments will powerfully augment and integrate with our analogue senses, providing data and digital inputs in ways many of us have not yet imagined. Individual experience too, won’t always have to be personally accumulated over time, it will simply be created by smart AI (artificial intelligence) and overlaid digitally in front of our eyes or piped into our ears.

Are some teams in our businesses suffering experience deficits?

Ok. That’s convincing, let’s do nothing. End of article. Or is it?

Is it Ok to do nothing in every situation? After all, we are not at the point of singularity with AI just yet. We may be heading that way, but right now we are seeing team strength steadily downsizing in some job roles. Individuals are feeling increased responsibility and pressure as their experienced buddies walk out the door to retire, leaving them with extra workload but without the experienced pool of people to deal with it. There is a sense of vulnerability in some sectors of business and industry.

Let’s consider for example, a Control Room Operator, running a power plant or scheme. This job role has significant responsibility for meeting a company’s generation targets. Equally importantly, the Operator ensures the scheme or plant functions within the environmental constraints and consents set for its location.

The role is typically supported by a generally well automated control system. When everything is running normally, the Operator adopts more an oversight role, monitoring and cross checking. It’s when things deviate from the norm or an unplanned event occurs, that experience kicks in. For example, a piece of equipment fails, a worker is injured, or an environmental event like a storm or volcanic eruption occurs. It’s important to react and respond appropriately in these situations, before events become emergencies, to setup conditions in the scheme or on the site to manage whatever situation is unfolding. An experienced person in this role will anticipate likely consequences from what’s happening, and have a range of potential responses ready to action.

The numbers of people in these roles are slowly decreasing as technology becomes smarter and more deeply integrated, but we are some time away from the point where complex schemes can be fully entrusted to supervision-free automation. In the mean time, individuals who fulfil these roles are under increased pressure. The importance of capturing the experience of their retiring workmates, and channelling it back into the business, seems, in the medium term, more urgent than ever.

Can digital technology help us capture and distribute experience?

With this scenario in mind, we’ll look at a real world example involving the design and build of a digital tool supporting plant and equipment operation plant.

The installation it supported performed a standby function, so it was infrequently used. This made it difficult for operations teams to maintain capability as they didn’t get much opportunity to practice. Compounding things, the in-house operations expert was due to retire within six months.

industrial plant scene with steam pipes illustrating complex standby plant

The operation and maintenance of standby plant is often an ideal situation for digital capture and sharing of experience.

A project was started and the soon-to-be-retiring operator was asked to contribute as a subject matter expert. He was interviewed and his actions recorded on the job. His experience helped filter the important from the nice-to-know, along with helping to create and select the right content to ensure the piece was focussed for the job role. The project included expertise from other technicians and information from operations manuals. Importantly, the ‘as built’ reality of the installation was also visually captured, as this can vary from original designs and drawings. A digital reference tool was created and released to the business. It supported workflow for experienced people and was a reference resource for new hires and those in transition.

Other job aids were built supporting other items of plant and equipment. These engaged a wider group of experienced team members as contributors. These digital resources successfully supported individuals in making better decisions, improving accuracy, and where appropriate, helped them follow recommended ways of working.

Identifying where experience matters.

When considering which parts of a business could benefit from a digital intervention like this, one approach is to analyse areas where experience contributes to improved performance, decision making or risk mitigation.

Look for teams where individuals are applying their ‘know-how’ in making good decisions, dealing with complexity and mitigating risk. Where they know when to take action and when not to. Where they show foresight or predictive ability to maximise opportunity and are able to correctly determine right actions.

Serving up a dose of experience.

Experience can be a challenge to capture as it’s embedded in sub-conscious behaviours and implicit knowledge. The best way to reveal it is to observe the actions and decisions made by experienced people. One way is to buddy up with individuals and shadow them as they work, observing and recording their actions to video or audio. Ask questions about the choices and decisions they make as they work, always looking for insights and actions that create, just the right, outcomes.

Experience is best served blended. Mix it into a solution with existing explicit knowledge from documentation, guides, discussion threads, process maps and procedures. Digital solutions like performance support tools and job aids work well for this.

visual technical manual with embedded experience hints

Example of a re-imagined technical manual where procedures were interpreted visually and experience embedded.

Embed and re-purpose experience into process, procedures and training materials. Publish field tips, micro video guides, stories, case studies and job aids. Socialise it with others online and in person.  Be mindful of ‘half-life’.  Capture and re-purpose experience where it will have the most value and deliver it so it feels like getting great advice from a trusted friend.

Notes

1 Half Life – the time required for a quantity, in this case experience, to reduce to half its initial value