In the coming decades, automation is expected to displace vast numbers of employees performing routine tasks in a variety of industries, including Asian factory workers and low-wage jobs in the US manufacturing, logistics, and service sectors. One study posits that half of the world’s work can already be automated using current technologies, though in many cases it is not yet economically efficient to do so. The jobs most ripe for automation are those involving routine, repetitive, manual tasks that robots can perform more rapidly and precisely than humans without experiencing boredom, injury, or fatigue.
Nonetheless, many of the people who have held these jobs up until now possess knowledge that may still be valuable to their employers even after they are replaced by machines. In that light, Quartz’s Sarah Kessler considers what automation will mean for training and knowledge retention as fewer and fewer employees remain who remember how to do the robots’ jobs:
As GE has automated its factories, its executives say they still value experience like [assembler Bill] Knight’s, if only because it helps them catch machine errors and, in some cases, better understand how to program machines. “If there’s something wrong in the calibration of this equipment, I need to know that,” says Denice Biocca, GE’s head of HR for supply chain and services. “I need to have some sort of understanding of what [the process] should be in order to know, ‘the machine says it’s tight, but I know it’s not.”
At the New York Times, Christopher Farrell takes a look at how aging blue-collar workers, some of whom are no longer capable of doing their physically taxing jobs but not financially secure enough to retire altogether, are trying to transition into new, less strenuous roles where their hard skills are still valuable:
Blue-collar jobs are hard work. Eventually, most blue-collar workers find the wear and tear on their bodies too draining to continue. Moreover, many industrial companies are reluctant to hire or keep older workers as the number of such jobs shrinks. Yet many blue-collar workers, like their white-collar counterparts, can’t afford or don’t want to retire (often a combination of the two).
One option is mentorship. With a worsening shortage of welders, machinists and other crafts workers, apprenticeship programs offer older skilled workers a less strenuous job opportunity: Teaching their craft to the next generation. “Blue-collar retirees are committed to their fields,” says Robert Eckardt, executive vice president at the Cleveland Foundation. “There is space for blue-collar people to mentor.”
And on the flip-side, many re-skilling initiatives are aimed at precisely this cohort:
Power in the workplace depends to a significant extent on which people has access to what information, and a tyrannical boss can assert dominance by controlling that access. Writing from her own experience with bosses who deliberately shut her out of decision-making and withhold information from her, Margery Weinstein at Training Magazine wonders whether this sort of thing happens to women more often than it does to men:
Access to information is what people need to advance and prove themselves. When employees are brought into important conversations early, they have the opportunity to contribute ideas and influence how plans are implemented. When they are brought in at the last minute, they are left in a helpless position. The decisions have already been made, and the plans are in place, with the employee’s job at that point to just smile, nod, and say, “Yes.”
Between the sheer size of the baby boomer generation and an increasing labor force participation rate among adults over 60, the median age of the American workforce is steadily increasing. Although boomers are staying in the workforce longer and retiring later, the oldest boomers are now in their 70s and, as Jeff Green at Bloomberg points out, some 10,000 are retiring each day and handing off the baton to their children’s generation: the millennials. Green stresses that this shift is hitting all employers, large and small, but well-established firms have the most at stake:
“Many large, older companies are caught up in a tsunami of baby boomers retiring and are unaware of how much tribal knowledge they are taking with them,” says Dorothy Leonard, professor emerita at Harvard Business School. … “In the next 10 to 15 years, we’re going to have the greatest transfer of knowledge that’s ever taken place,” says Chip Espinoza, director of organization psychology at Concordia University Irvine. An effective way to handle the shift, he says, is for a company to create relationships between the generations.
“It’s clearly an emerging area that everyone is dealing with,” says Mike Preston, Deloitte’s chief talent officer. Within a decade, maybe sooner, he says, there will be no boomers in Deloitte’s top management.
Business leaders wring their hands over whether millennials are ready to succeed their elders, and making sure their organizations hold onto that “tribal knowledge” is a big factor in their readiness: without a way of passing it on, the boomer retirements could drive productivity to a screeching halt. And of course, having been crowded out by boomers, millennials have few leadership experiences to draw on and are perceived as ill-equipped to take the reins. Green looks at how some large employers are handling the challenge, such as defense contractor BAE Systems:
In the Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Knight passes along some expert insight into how best to pass on the wisdom of high-performing employees when they leave your organization. One suggestion she offers is to create an apprenticeship of sorts for their successors:
If you have months for a transition, [Dorothy Leonard, professor emerita at Harvard Business School,] suggests creating a “carefully constructed action plan of learning,” whereby the “highly skilled, deep smarts employee is paired with one or more replacements” so they can observe her in action, learn and practice new skills, and receive feedback on their performance. Consider it “an accelerated apprenticeship.” The learner might sit in on a conference call to hear how the expert pitches clients or attend a meeting to observe her soliciting input from colleagues in another department. After a period of shadowing, give successors a series of “mini-experiences” so they can try doing the tasks on their own. “We don’t learn deeply by checklists or lectures,” Leonard says. “We learn by doing.”
Knight’s sources also strongly recommend that you focus on maintaining good relationships with former star employees, starting in the offboarding process. Those relationships leave the door open for you to come to them with questions later or hire them back as consultants or “boomerang employees.”
This is all useful advice, to be sure, but I’d love to see an article that also looks at deciding what knowledge not to transfer. Almost anyone who leaves is also taking with them a few weaknesses you don’t want duplicated by the next person—how do you prevent that from being transitioned?