Blogger: Joe Maguire
Sometime in the last six months, Glorification Of Youth slipped to #2 on our list of top-ten cultural obsessions. The new leader: Anxiety About the Global Financial Meltdown. (Holding steady at #3 is Our Fixation With Top-Ten Lists.)
While the new top dog induces layoffs in IT shops, the erstwhile top dog keeps barking. In choosing whether and whom to lay off, managers struggle to strike a balance between youth and experience.
The dilemma reminds me of my wise friend Jim’s approach to building a team for home-construction or home-renovation projects. Naturally, the construction team must include an on-site leader, and various licensed specialists (for electrical, plumbing, etc.) But the on-site team must also include—I’m using Jim’s words here—“an old guy.”
Old guys—whom I’ll refer to with the non-sexist term “seasoned veterans”—have seen everything. More to the point, they have seen just about everything go wrong: The windows are delivered, but they’re slightly too small; the vintage pocket doors will interfere with the planned upgrades to the plumbing system; the paint smells funny.
When something goes wrong (and something will always go wrong), inexperienced specialists will step back and invent a solution, sometimes starting from square one—in effect deriving a solution from first principles. This is a great learning exercise, but it can be slow, expensive, and unreliable.
By contrast, a seasoned veteran will simply remember all the previous occurrences of similar problems, and choose a solution from the tried-and-true approaches in his or her vast experience. In the worst-case scenario, the seasoned veteran might have to combine aspects of two previous problems to concoct a hybrid solution.
What’s more, seasoned veterans can recognize problems before they happen, and they can immediately distinguish minor problems from major ones.
That’s true expertise. What makes a person an expert is not high IQ, or talent, or some other mysterious gift of grace. Expertise comes from two things: experience and a capacity to leverage it. Experience is the exclusive purview of veterans. The capacity to leverage that experience comes primarily from conscious or unconscious pattern recognition.
Veterans are walking, talking pattern libraries. Laying off veterans means discarding vast stores of invaluable, unrecoverable information. Nevertheless, layoffs often include both veterans and junior personnel. This makes sense; organizations strive for a healthy mix of youth and experience, in part so that veterans can mentor (officially or otherwise) the more junior personnel. To preserve that mix, layoffs should not skew toward youth only or experience only.
So the anguishing question is: How do you decide which veterans to keep? Are some walking-talking-pattern-libraries less indispensible than others? (Linguistically, we’re on shaky ground here. Indispensible is an absolute—there are no shades of indispensability. This is one of the many reasons why layoffs are so painful.)
Obviously, the veteran who knows all the idiosyncrasies of your mission-critical operational systems should make the team cuts. By similar reasoning, it is tempting to keep any veteran who is steeped in technology. However, if you are retaining some experts and dismissing others, it is best to consider which veterans will be able to mentor more junior members of the workforce. In many cases, this will not be the technologists, but the specialists in business information.
Technologies come and go, so a specialist in a particular technology or paradigm might be a valuable mentor only to junior employees who also specialize in that technology. However, a veteran who specializes in the technology-neutral fundamentals of business information and business processes can potentially mentor anyone in the IT shop, because in the IT shop, everyone should be focused on the business.
(Afterthought regarding the pain of layoffs: You will notice that I offer no advice about often devastating human cost of layoffs. If I had access to that kind of wisdom, I’d be in a different career, and that career would be my gift to humanity.)