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Gear up for baby boomers' exodus from tech

Tibco CEO Vivek Ranadive says companies must preserve the "tribal wisdom" of retiring workers or pay the price.

Baby boomers--the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964--will begin to retire in droves at the end of this decade. Traditionally, most people retire in their early to mid-60s. If history holds true, that means tens of millions of people will soon exit the work force.

What's more alarming than the magnitude of this number is the amount of invaluable experience these people will take with them. These employees have what I call tribal wisdom, a repository of historical knowledge accumulated over the years that provides a complete and contextual picture of situations.

Businesses with a large population of soon-to-exit boomers will need to figure out how to capture and catalog this tribal wisdom and find a way to pass it down to the next generation of employees in some useful fashion. Otherwise, they will face severe challenges.

This is especially critical for problems or processes that span functional boundaries and for understanding their interrelated effects.

Let me offer an anecdote that gets at what I'm talking about. E&J Gallo Winery is a company with more than 4,600 employees and various automated decision-making systems, intranet portals, and knowledge management and business process tools. As you might imagine, Gallo also has a range of different bottling lines, some new, some very old.

What tribal wisdom isn't about is targeting and convincing specific people to work beyond retirement.

One of their lines for filling international orders hadn't been running at peak performance. A number of smart people tried but failed to fix the problem over the course of a week. Then a lone employee, who had worked in the bottling room for 30 years before retiring two years ago, spent a single hour observing how the machine functioned. Within no time, he got the system back to top form.

Tribal wisdom isn't, however, about is targeting and convincing specific people to work beyond retirement. Just the opposite. It's giving the younger generation of workers the opportunity and responsibility to implement change, improve business processes and preserve the tribal wisdom until it is no longer useful.

Tribal wisdom can embody a lot of different things. It can be all about preventive maintenance or devising instructions on how to ensure operational excellence, as in the case of Gallo's bottling line. But it could be something more sophisticated, such as anticipating and formulating situations, correlating and adjusting production events, and understanding the procedural bottlenecks in an organization.

Many companies are turning to new technologies to document, automate and improve work flows. They ultimately want to enable wider, real-time access to critical company knowledge. Enterprise technologies, in particular, that focus on business process automation are critical pieces of the puzzle.

That will be especially important in fields like health care and education, which traditionally have placed less emphasis on technology-driven productivity innovations. These technologies, combined with the right corporate policies and mechanisms, will help pass useful information to the front lines.

Tribal wisdom and the business processes it drives are the lifeblood of any organization. Businesses that figure this out are going to be a half step ahead of their competition. It's no exaggeration to say that tribal wisdom may eclipse databases as the most valuable of all corporate assets.