This post outlines several research opportunities arising out of the need to accept greater numbers and proportion of older people in organizations workforces. I would argue that most organizations are designed (i.e., role designs) with a an implicit demographic profile in mind. And, this profile reflects a 30 year old view (i.e., a profile of the organization’s society 30 years ago). Please note, this is a straight away opinion, with no specific research data to back it up.
What I have experienced is that clients who decide to doing staffing profiles based on standardized competencies and productivity profiles make decisions on how many people they need in specific roles. For example, a regionalized organization has located offices, and staffed them with skilled people based on expected work levels and types. Due to cost pressures the effort is to move to a “just enough” resources decision choices. One such client I worked with found that they had a fundamental flaw in their assumptions in specific locations based on age profile of specific offices being significantly older. Why? Because these locations were attractive to those approaching retirement. This observance leads to the following conclusion:
Why do we need research on the implications for older workforces? Because, we typically primarily design jobs around role requirements with no specific consideration of the demographic profile of those who will fill them. Why does this matter? In most other business processes where there are process flows, we consider the quality and quantity attributes of expected inputs when we design the actual process infrastructure. We this because it matters in terms of operation, quality control, maintenance, cost of operations, etc. So why don’t we design roles that factor in aging workforces?
In 2001 I went to a conference that concerned itself with disability management. and was intrigued by a presentation (J. Durchak – Marconi, and C. Miller – Intracorp) that delved into the physiology of aging, the implications for employers and possible solutions.
This presentation covered research done regarding the physiological implications of getting older (e.g., declining maximal strength, bone density and cognitive speed/functions; along with increasing medical issues such as diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, etc.). The presenters clearly acknowledged that general aging of workforces (or workforce groups) had material role performance implications and they advocated an information based strategic course of action.
However, the research focused on work roles that were mainly production/industrial related (ones that were exposed to repetitive motion, sprains and rotator cuff tear risks). There was no information on the implications on knowledge work related roles.
I recently did a Google search on the implications of age on work performance and the emphasis on production/industrial research prevailed.
As I am not trained in the areas of medicine, cognitive psychology, geriatrics, etc. I am not in any position to meaningfully speculate on the implications of aging on knowledge work. there are a lot of general statements out there. As we grow old we:
- become more risk adverse
- less creative in our ability to develop new concepts and theories
- our ability to recognize patterns improves
- our ability to concentrate for periods of time diminishes
Assume for a moment, many of these are true. How would we use this information to design roles in organizations?
I would be interested in any useful research that explored the implications on role design for knowledge work.
I find this gap, disconcerting because as more and more roles are occupied with older and older people the implications of aging will show up in greater detail. It’s one thing when a series of knowledge work roles are occupied (say 10%) with older people, it seems that if the proportions are reversed (now 90%) we could possibly see clear performance impacting trends.
As the reader of this BLOG knows I have a focus on role performance as a key TM lever. So having a better basis upon how to factor in demographic factors into establishing role performance design would be very helpful.
Do I anticipate that performance will decrease with scenario outlined above? I don’t know (but I suspect no in specific circumstances), and I suspect it isn’t clear to many others either (we may have opinions – but how many of these are based on any sound research?).
Anyone else have parallel concerns?