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The Grey Tsunami Problem: Why It’s Really About Communication

The “grey tsunami” was a big topic at my agency a few years back. The expectation was that up to 70% of the agency’s workforce would take early retirement. Massive amounts of tacit knowledge would be lost. In preparation, my team attempted to “crowdsource” the knowledge of the experienced staff. We wanted to convert that tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. We even got some groups to add “knowledge sharing” as a performance metric for their staff.

It’s About Knowledge Management…Right?

We built an internal wiki using the MediaWiki engine. We got management to buy into the idea of group sourced articles. It was a huge success. When we released the wiki, we had contributors create just under 1000 articles in under six months. People were sharing knowledge! Then something odd happened. The “grey tsunami” didn’t happen. The economy made people nervous and they decided to stay.

Whenever you prepare for something and then it doesn’t happen, you have time to evaluate it. You see all the things that didn’t go as well as planned. In many instances, the information in the wiki is helpful, but not really earth shattering. Top performers either didn’t want to give away all their secrets or they couldn’t articulate what made them so effective.

Slowly, the mass exodus started. My agency opened up VERA/VSIP (Voluntary Early Retirement Authority/Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment). People started leaving, but with a hiring freeze we didn’t have new staff to take over. Now we had a crisis. With the wiki not providing a magic solution, we have people literally trying to do more with less.

A Mentor Retires

For me, handling the experience losses due to retirement was just an interesting knowledge management experiment. Then it hit me personally. My awesome boss retired last week. He was one of the best managers of people I have ever seen. He had humor, empathy, technical knowledge and humility. It was a pleasure to work with him.

He knew his role was not to be the technocrat or push one technology over another. He focused his attention on putting each person on his team into the best situation for them to succeed. The team flourished and good solution poured out of our shop. He pushed us to be innovative and to try new things. He moved people into roles that better suited their interests and personalities. Senior management often wasn’t comfortable with everything we did. They weren’t thrilled with our move to open source and other things that our business lines liked. My boss didn’t care. If the business line was happy with the results, then he happily provided us with “high level air support” from other senior managers.

So, Is It Really Innovation Versus Experience?

I was still bothered by the issue of why some managers were so against innovation in certain areas (open source, cloud computing, mobile access, etc). Typically, the older generation is depicted as being risk averse and set in their ways. Leaning on experience, they supposedly knock down new ideas before they get out the door. But here is my former boss (older than the typical retirement age) still working and pushing our team to be more innovative and more creative. Senior management was younger than him and were inexplicably set in a one solution fits all mentality.

It seems to me this answer is more about risk aversion than age. Very generally speaking, most management is older and most innovators are just coming into the workforce. Thus, it looks like an age issue. As a member of Generation X (or Y depending on who you talk to) I see both sides. However, the most insidious result I see is that the innovative staff get so disillusioned that they stop sharing new ideas and simply think “I’ll wait them out”. People to stop sharing. Solutions stagnate and the business lines suffer for it. We cannot do that to our constituents.

An Elegant Solution

I attended the FOSE 2014 conference back in May. I asked FOSE Women in Technology panel how they mitigate differences between the generationals. All the panelists were excellent and Anne Altman from IBM, Lisa Schlosser from OMB and Barbara Rivera from Experian provided an elegant answer. They said the younger generation must continue to challenge the older generation. However, they must phrase it as “How I can I use your experience and my new ideas to fix this pervasive problem?”

I love this answer, because it makes the wicked problem into a common bad guy. With a common enemy, the generations can work together to tackle the problems they couldn’t solve on their own.

So what are the problems, you’re trying to tackle in your organization? How can you team up your most experienced staff with your rising stars to discover the most clever solutions?

NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public or private sector employer, organization or related entity.

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