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Dave Snowden

The ageing workforce part 1

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One of the hardy annuals used to justify knowledge management programmes is the problem of the ageing workforce. Equally persistent, to the point of perversion, are the subsequent imposition of solutions based on codification. Nothing wrong with that in the obvious domain of Cynefin and at least a part of the complicated domain but to be honest most of those applications should be business as usual, there is nothing special about those whose retirement is immanent in respect of the need here.

In reality the question is a wider one, which is how to we capture or distill knowledge that is wrapt up in experience. I hesitate to use the wisdom word but it is appropriate here. It is worth looking at the nature of that knowledge/wisdom and why it is important. It is also relevant to realise that the ageing workforce is one of the easier (if any are easy) areas of experience to retain. You can still engage people post retirement but rarely if they leave for alternative employment and with extreme difficulty if you lay them off. In fact you might want to read on my earlier post about naturally evolved roles before you even think about that.

So it’s worth looking at three types of knowledge that are being lost before we go any further:

  1. A large part of experience is abductive in nature, the ability to link or connect what to the less experienced is a disconnect.  The more memories you have access to, the more diverse the experience that gave rise to them, the more extensive the networks which extend them, the more you can make those links under pressure.
  2. The trusted relationships that are part of those networks can only be treasured, social obligations built up over time through multiple projects are not something that can simply be recorded and they are not transactional anyway.   I never liked the idea of their being a favour bank; the wrong metaphor all together.  Many of them will only be known in the context of a need to know.
  3. Decision making under conditions of stress with limited information is always an issue and the authority or advocacy capability that comes with both experience and the lack of further ambition for promotion or power.  This is frequently neglected in problem definition but it is important.

All of those require approaches that are far from conventional in nature. In devising them we can drawn on one of the most ancient, and most effective, of knowledge transfer systems namely the apprentice model. We can use digital means to enhance that, but not replace it. But that is for tomorrow.

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