How technology helps us face the real workforce challenges

Heading for an iceberg? For senior company executives, it really is the case that the most important asset in their organization is the people who work in it. But a well-trained, experienced, and highly motivated workforce isn’t just the most important asset that a company possesses – it’s also one of the most easily lost.


Heading for an iceberg?

For senior company executives, it really is the case that the most important asset in their organization is the people who work in it.

But a well-trained, experienced, and highly motivated workforce isn’t just the most important asset that a company possesses %%MDASSML%% it’s also one of the most easily lost. What else is there that a company relies on that can just get up and walk away and never come back %%MDASSML%% taking with it skills, knowledge, and expertise that may have taken years to build up?

Well, if you didn’t believe it, you may have to think again %%MDASSML%% because that is what’s beginning to happen all over the world. As the members of the baby-boomer generation start to think about retiring, relaxing by the sea, and playing with their grandchildren, they are going to start leaving work.

And the worry is that there aren’t enough skilled workers coming up behind to fill the gaps. One of the big business challenges of the next few years is how to hang onto the knowledge and experience that is starting to walk out of the door.

It’s a problem that everybody knows is there %%MDASSML%% just like the Titanic, steaming straight for an iceberg.

A worldwide problem

So far, the problem has been seen particularly in the U.S., Italy, and Japan, and observers are in no doubt that the issue of knowledge transfer is set to spread through the international business world %%MDASSML%% particularly those sectors such as oil and gas, utilities, and aerospace which are most asset-dependent.

A few statistics make the point: by 2010, some 60% of the experienced managers now working in the U.S. oil and gas industry will have retired. In the utility industry, more than 14% of employees are eligible for retirement now; by 2010, about half of the experienced linemen who keep the power supplies running will be drawing their pensions.

High profile energy companies in the Middle East are desperately trying to find ways of passing on the expertise of their experienced expatriate staff to their young and ambitious nationals. In Europe, too, there is a growing awareness of the skills shortage.

The figures are there already, and unless people stop getting older, it’s a problem that will happen.

And it isn’t just a theoretical game about the future %%MDASSML%% failures in knowledge transfer can have serious implications not just for long-term efficiency and profitability, but also for safety and compliance.

Fatal explosions have been caused in the oil and gas industry, for instance, when information was never passed on about faults in equipment; an experienced worker may notice abnormalities in the way a machine is working that a younger colleague would miss; a driver who has taken a truck on the same route for 15 years will know the hazards better than the new recruit who comes in to replace him.

It’s all knowledge which is there within the company, in other words %%MDASSML%% today. But unless there is an effective mechanism for passing it on, it will be lost tomorrow. It will never reach the people who need it.

Companies can increase their efforts to recruit workers, and develop new working arrangements to make it more attractive for the ones they already have to stay with them. They can provide more opportunities for their staff to update their skills, and make it easier for different generations to work side by side. So the experienced staff may stay longer %%MDASSML%% but eventually, the company will still have to deal with the central issue of knowledge transfer. Most important of all %%MDASSML%% technology can be used to preserve the business-critical knowledge that is spread among the experienced staff before that knowledge walks away.

Fighting back with technology

If the workforce really is the most important asset in an organization, then it follows that it is an asset %%MDASSML%% and that means that it can be managed like one. Technology %%MDASSML%% EAM software %%MDASSML%% can help an organization to meet this problem, just as it would do with any other asset.

The technology to gather information about particular assets %%MDASSML%% the maintenance schedules of production lines, for instance, or the timing of necessary software updates %%MDASSML%% is already widespread in many companies.

The next step will be to gather such information across the organization %%MDASSML%% to use technology to pass on skills and knowledge about the care, maintenance, and management of existing assets from experienced employees to the less experienced ones who will eventually have to take their place. Instead of the company losing expertise with every new retirement, its expanding knowledge bank will improve efficiency and help to build morale.

The benefits are obvious %%MDASSML%% a keener, highly motivated workforce, improvements in the management of both plant and product leading to fewer shocks and less downtime, and protection against the threat of information, knowledge, and technical know-how leaking out of the organization.

But is it all happening? Not yet, or at least, not widely enough. The problem is generally accepted %%MDASSML%% it’s no longer a question of “Will my organization be facing a crisis?” but of “Are we ready for it when it happens?” And the answer, in all too many cases, is “No.”

With the rapid development of technology and the growth of global competitiveness, getting new employees up to speed quickly is taking on a new priority. The ability to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next is becoming a critical factor in medium-term business planning.

It’s not that they don’t see what’s happening %%MDASSML%% a recent study of utility management and supervisory staff in the US showed that 92% believed that the loss of unique and valuable expertise over the next five years would cause problems %%MDASSML%% it’s that they aren’t doing anything to counter it. In the same survey, just 30% said they had a plan in place to capture knowledge from experienced staff.

So many companies are still not ready to adapt to the radical changes in the workforce that the next few years will bring. The experience and knowledge on which their companies depend more than anything are getting ready to walk away; they are about to lose their most valuable asset. They can see the problem coming, but, either because they think action can wait, or because they are distracted by more pressing concerns, they haven’t taken action to deal with the situation.

No doubt the captain of the Titanic thought much the same %%MDASSML%% but he found out the hard way that it was a false economy.

Except from the book, “The Business Impact of Enterprise Asset Management,” by IBM Software Group, IBM Corp. For a copy of the book, go to .

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