Suffer the old people

O pescador (Projeto retratos)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zanini H.

As someone on the dark side of 50, I’ve earned the right to use the “O” word.

So what exactly was I referring to when I said “old”?

You might’ve heard of the term “SME”, or subject matter expert. Depending on the business, your SMEs might be young, old or a mix of both. In many businesses, they tend to be older staff members.

So what’s the challenge?

It’s managing the transfer of domain knowledge between generations – without causing a significant drop in productivity during training time.

But that’s not all, there are people issues too.

Consider this:

  • You have subject matter experts with deep domain knowledge and decades of work experience. They’re essential to production, support, sales and/or delivery of your company’s products and services.
  • You have less-experienced staff members hungry to take on new responsibilities and learn new skills.
  • You charge these less experienced staffers with learning from their more experienced peers and with taking over some production work from these subject matter experts when they’re ready.

Cross-training a crew of young, inexperienced staffers using SMEs has to be done carefully, but it’s critical to the survival of your business.

That isn’t all

Older workers can find themselves trapped by the very domain knowledge you value. The trap is being “too valuable” in their current position. Once they become the only person who can deal with things that might go wrong in production, opportunities tend to be offered to others. We can’t hurt production by moving the SME, can we?

Worse yet, they get used to taking calls on their sick and vacation days, eventually creating pressure and/or guilt over what their even well-deserved absence is doing to their employer’s business. They know that they’re essential to critical path processes and bear the burden of never having true downtime to recharge, much less grow into new and different responsibilities.

These pressures add to the difficulty of cross-training an inexperienced staff member, because that training slows down production and distracts that critical path worker. Yet every day you put it off makes it more expensive and more risky.

As management, you simply can’t let these destructive cycles get started.

It isn’t that businesses can’t survive without senior staff. Very few people are truly irreplaceable. However, SMEs experienced what got the business to this point and often, they’re the only people who know why you do things the way you do them – even if that needs to change.

Avoiding the potholes

The situation’s no easier for the younger staff. Look at it from their point of view.

If you’re young, you may be thinking that you’ve been fighting to get your chance and that these “old people” just won’t give it to you, that they’re stalling and have no patience, or that management just won’t make it happen.

While it’s normal to be impatient with the speed of change, I remind younger workers that those frustrating old staff members might be just as frustrated as they are, but about different things.

The critical role for management in this process is removing the unknowns. Until everyone understands how important these transfers are, your business is at risk. No matter who is involved and how many people are affected, any lack of consistency, purpose and clarity will be the source of the rumors that feed the fear of the unknown and create friction.

Value the past and the future

A few things to keep in mind:

Don’t give the experienced employee the feeling that they’re being put out to pasture, nor the cause of the problem. Fact is, their dedication, skill and productivity are likely what enabled you to put them in this position in the first place. This isn’t about their age or dedication or about devaluing them. It’s about the strategic importance of making sure that the business isn’t depending on any single person or resource for a business-critical activity. These employees deserve some peace of mind.

Likewise, the young employee will feel similar pressures. They need to know that they have time to learn and make mistakes and that being “tutored” isn’t a reflection of their current inexperience as much as it is an investment in their future value to the company.

2 thoughts on “Suffer the old people”

  1. Interesting take and spot-on… for smaller businesses, managing the seemingly disparate needs of senior and junior staff is a great challenge that many don’t really know how to do. And like you imply, it’s easy for workers (especially when the economy is still struggling to fully recover) to develop a “turf war” mentality. Then they go into their silos and spend time guarding their territory rather than innovating and contributing to growth.

  2. Thanks for the article. I have found it’s always great to create a pipeline of protege, the student / workers are hand picked, and personally trained to your liking… after a few years ,they are ready to take on the role you train them for…. This will in turn free up our time to work more on the business rather than in the business.

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