Before this recession forced unemployment rolls to become despairingly bloated, we were talking about the demographic bubble about to burst. Obviously any vigorous debate about whether the impending retirement of baby boomers will leave organizations hurting for enough employees has been pushed aside. But what happens when the economy grows again?
The amount of employees in the U.S. workforce between ages 55 and 64 is growing faster than the amount of employees between ages 35 and 44. Some industries, and some skills, face more risk, especially the healthcare, oil and gas, and public sectors.
Some experts worry less about numbers and more about knowledge. James Sowers of Buck Consultants’ human resource management practice, which co-sponsored a study of 480 organizations, said, “It’s more than just a problem of not having enough bodies to replace retiring boomers. The real challenge is transferring boomers’ knowledge and talents to succeeding generations of workers.” In a CIO.com article, Peter Cappelli, an HR Executive columnist, management professor, and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School noted, “Organizations should be examining now if they have the capability to retain some of the knowledge. If they are paying any kind of attention, they should be able to do that.”
Classroom and on-the-job training won’t be enough. That might help transfer some formal and technical skills. But the Delphi Group, which integrates IT and business consulting, discovered that 42 percent of what organizations use every day to operate is unique and undocumented, residing solely in the minds of employees. Rich Schoonover, of Enginuity LLC, a mechanical contracting company, describes this bigger challenge:
“It is tacit knowledge that we all possess that cannot be easily converted to a physical form to be implanted into processes and standards … From legends, parables and anecdotes told around tribal fires to the world-wide-web, mankind has struggled throughout time to pass tacit knowledge from one generation to the next. At the root of this struggle is the simple, inherent unreliability of human memory that, when coupled with our own unique interpretation and perspective, alters what has been received.”
Robert Weaver, a compensation analyst with two decades on the job, uses his savvy and experience to save the state of Virginia time and aggravation. Governing Magazine, in an article exploring the hardships anticipated by the public sector when boomers retire, demonstrated the intangibles Weaver brings to the job. As he looked over a proposal developed by colleagues, he quickly identified its problems. “He has honed a talent for seeing what others miss—the unaddressed problem, the potential loophole, the unanticipated consequence,” Governing wrote. Discussing demonstration projects called “knowledge mapping,” Governing described the two familiar, but under-valued facts of work life those projects rely on:
“First, most tacit knowledge is transmitted informally from person to person … Second, the most valuable people in organizations aren’t necessarily the ones who know a lot themselves but rather are those who know whom to contact for information when it’s needed.”
It’s natural to appreciate knowledge and stories that stand the test of time. At The History Factory, we conduct oral histories with important leaders who are retired or nearing retirement and no one questions the value of preserving their memories. But what about the legions of Robert Weavers who connect the dots more quickly and make their organizations function more efficiently and effectively?
Nor is this just a matter of retirement. Recently, a client wondered if our methodologies could help them capture their lightning in bottle—how does innovation occur? What elements of such history-in-the-making can we record? Obviously, we can’t bottle the genius and experience of unique individuals, and some aspects of innovation are precious precisely because you can’t isolate and repeat them at will. What concerns us is that so often we’re not even asking how we might preserve the wisdom and tacit knowledge of key individuals—retiring or not.