The Great Knowledge Worker Flusheroo

First Wave Coder/Data Analyst knowledge worker and culture watcher, I’ve followed the 20th century phenomena known as the Knowledge Worker.  A concept coined by one of the great minds of the 20th Century, Peter Druker.  He rightly foresaw that it would be the growing base of wisdom/knowledge contained within information technologists, professionals professionals, and other related classes which would drive the growth of the new economy.  We saw much gained for Western society and other societies which rightly understood that knowledge itself would become  a treasured process from which great wealth would be produced.

Yet, it is my observation which is shared by others, that some corporate/government management and human resources in general have not understood that much of the knowledge contained within the Knowledge Class of workers is not contained within manuals, policies, or processes. They are contained within the minds of the Knowledge worker class.  One of my touchstones is that, “humans know more than they articulate or can articulate.”  Even in what appear to be highly systematized forms of knowledge, people always know more than they articulate.  It’s not that they are unwilling, it is just the nature of knowledge.

This blog was created to advocate for the older worker, not just for compassionate reasons, but because it is my conviction that we are flushing away the wealth producing capacity of the older Knowledge Class.  Why?  Western society has not adequately grasped that the next generation of Knowledge Workers need to be mentored/apprenticed by the existing Knowledge Worker Base. The most important knowledge is passed through mentorship not manuals. RTFM can not replace WTOF (Watch the Old Fart).

“Establishing a program for transferring knowledge is an essential element for dealing with “brain drain.” Veteran utility workers tend to pass valuable institutional knowledge orally, rather than documenting and updating the information systematically. This intellectual capital is often lost when the worker retires because there is no formal program to capture their know-how.” – Who Will Replace Nuclear Power’s Aging Work Force? – Power Engineering.

I ran across this article which documented the problem of utility workers not documenting or systematizing their knowledge, but rather passing on in orally.  The article, while helpful, does not understand that many workers are unable to systematize their oral knowledge. Not all human beings are able to convert their verbal knowledge into symbolic knowledge. In fact, few can do this effectively. In some forms of knowledge it is impossible or impractical (the manual would be too large).

Writing is a difficult skill.  Margaret Laurence, a feisty and iconic Canadian writer articulated it well. At a party, when Laurence was informed by  a neurosurgeon that he intended to take up writing in retirement, responded, “When I retire, I’m going to be a neurosurgeon.”

Expecting utility workers, even with help, to codify a sufficient sum of their knowledge base into documents for other’s to then acquire is over-confidence at best.  Even if possible, one has to consider how possible it is to acquire technical knowledge through reading, videos, or any other non-human transmitted method.  The problem is two fold in my mind.  Firstly, much knowledge of any craft is unarticulated. As strange as it sounds, people don’t know they know stuff. People know things they only are aware of when their re-encounter them. The knowledge bubbles up and they think, “Hey, I remember dealing with something like this or similar to this 22 years ago). Often the master worker combines earned knowledge into a new synthesis to apply it to a new problem.   My point is that, you can not codify wisdom since it is often inarticulate-able or can not be effectively transferred from the fuzzy logic inherent with the human brain to the structured written word.

Mentoring and intergenerational teams, combined with the codification of key processes in written form, is the most effective method for passing on knowledge from one generation of Knowledge Workers to the next.  Without such processes, critical information is certain to be lost.  More importantly, the Knowledge Worker community is eroded in favour of a highly individualistic transient work culture. A culture of intergenerational relationship and collectively acquired knowledge is squandered … flushed down the drain.

“What seasoned workers have traditionally seen as a step up on the corporate ladder, today’s young employee is more likely to see as a resume builder.” – Who Will Replace Nuclear Power’s Aging Work Force? – Power Engineering.

Want to make young Knowledge Workers laugh?  While having a couple beers, ask them how loyal they are to their company.  Much that could be written on why that is, however it signals the second and more damaging aspect of our business culture. Failing to understand the intergenerational aspect of knowledge transfer from one generation to another, erodes the desire to mentor. By not mentoring, we are fostering a new generation which may have little desire to mentor. Why would they? They, as we all were, are shaped by what we encounter in our human communities.

Most older workers in my generation still have a strong mentoring ethic with studies showing that somewhere around 80% of older workers will mentor.  I would predict that within a decade or two this number will fall to about 50% and continue its decline.  The outcomes of that decline may not be readily obvious because cultural stagnation rarely is until its too late.

The largest penalty for our folly, is in lost opportunities. As each subsequent generation has to relearn the lost experience/knowledge of the past, they fail to acquire as much new knowledge and insights, improvements … breakthroughs are not achieved.  Energies spent on the future are used relearning the mistakes of the past. These insights, improvements and breakthroughs are what spur productivity benefits, new products and even whole new industries.  We miss seeing this loss, since something not conceived of will not be missed. We flush a greater future by flushing the past.

Older Workers Better at Managing Work Overload 

Companies are often remiss in assessing the performance of younger workers as compared to older workers.  I’ve told the story a number of times, how one company was going to let “the old fat guy with a beard” (not me :) ) go because he always left at 5:00PM while other younger workers showed greater commitment by working late and on weekends.   When they checked the output of the “Old Fart”, they found he resolved three times more support calls than most of the “Young Hot Shots”.  He was the top support analyst … a rock star.

Younger generations may take more time to adapt to the needs of the workplace, while older workers have learned how to manage information flows and ignore unnecessary information. –More than two-thirds of U.S. workers suffer from work overload – Story

This is born out by this study which attributes older worker resilience to learning information flow and discerning what is unnecessary information.  In my experience this is true, however they missing two important strengths of older workers.

1. Dealing with Distress

Where two or three gather you will have conflict.  Older workers often are superior communicators. This is born out in the study which shows that Boomers are more likely to choose face to face communication.  When I consulting for software development company, there was a client-wide software glitch caused by some hastily pushed out code.  Even though 75% of the clients were unlikely to have noticed it, I counselled the CEO to immediately phone all the clients personally.  Why?  Respect.  Hiding a screw-up is 10 times as bad as admitting one because it betrays trust.  Most clients appreciate knowing the truth. since it means you are leading a company which is committed to the truth.

Why do younger workers often avoid conflict?  It has been my observation that younger workers tend to choose to avoid the lesser current distress in the hopes of avoiding a bigger future distress.  Older workers have learned that distress is part of life and something that is better faced head on.  “You just take your lumps”.

2. If you think you are communicating enough, you aren’t.

Communication is difficult work.  The old know this truth as do a few rare younger workers.  Miscommunication is endemic to the human condition and if one is not intentional about communicating to clients, coworkers, and management, unnecessary troubles are sure to ensue.  Watch how often older workers tend to be proactive communicators.  Watch how often younger workers tend to be reactive communicators.

3. Don’t Squander the Gaps

Older workers use slow downs to catch up or for proactive improvements to their work flows.  This is one of the reasons they are efficient. When I was young, there were periods I thought, “There is nothing to do for a few hours.”  Of course, there is always something to do, even if it is to reorganize your files, run some diagnostic software.  Or as #2 teaches … connect with people.

Please let me know what in your experience have been the benefits that older workers have developed through experience?

Now please enjoy one of Canada’s great old farts … Bruce Cockburn … singing about a dream which overcame his fear of a Soviet/West Nuclear War …

Age Discrimination in IT. Cautioning the young.

When I talk with my son about an IT career, I sometimes wonder whether I should steer him clear of the industry.  If I had a daughter, the caution would be doubled by the problem of sexism.  Should young people invest 20 years of their lives  only to discover that Silicon Valley considers them obsolete while in their prime (ie 40’s).

“42% of age 50+ workers in the high tech industry consider age to be a liability in their career – more than double the rate of other industries” – Source: EEOC Official Blasts Age Discrimination in High Tech Industry

I can count on both hands the number of older IT workers (around late 30’s) who’ve either burned out by endless coding crisis/deadlines or decided that their opportunities are drying up.  A number have become electricians!

Combine this problem with the H-1b visa abuse (in Canada, its called the Temporary Foreign Worker Program), and perhaps recommending IT to any young person could be bad advice.  One could invest a decade or two only to find themselves forced to train some cheaper replacement worker.

Don’t get me wrong, I love geekdom and IT work, however unless the industry and governments wise up, they will find old IT workers recommending to the younger generation that they become electricians, linemen (there is a huge shortage and the pay is great), and carpenters.