Published here December 2007.


Musings Index

Should Project Managers Retire?

The question is: "Should Project Managers Retire and, if so, what is the place for our project management elders amongst the project management community?" Having reached that age when one begins to think of leaving a "legacy", I was persuaded to attend a "Philosopher's Café". This assembly was arranged by our local university to discuss the subject of "The Place of Elders in an Ever-evolving Society". In his introduction, the facilitator observed that "In traditional societies the elders were respected for their knowledge and wisdom."

That got me thinking, perhaps not entirely logically, on the issue: "As one of a number of established project managers 'of some years', what is our role today? Should we continue to prove ourselves or can we claim the nobility that should come with the gift of age?" For those who might not be quite clear, the phrase 'of some years' is, of course, a euphemism for 'getting long in the tooth' and that in turn is a reflection on those lucky enough to have any teeth left at all. But I digress.

The focus of the presenter was really about handing on knowledge and wisdom and it crossed my mind that both words, knowledge and wisdom, are popular subjects on today's project management literary circuit. However, do we really know what these words mean? And, since today's information technology is all about data and information, how do all these things fit together? Well, here's my take on the subject.

A data-wisdom hierarchy

While I am not an authority in this area, I do find the relationship between information, knowledge and wisdom interesting. In my view there are two organic phases separated by an important transition that all together form a logical hierarchy as follows:

Level 1: Data. At the lowest level these are just discrete bits similar to the digits in a telephone number. Of themselves they mean very little, and only represent potential.

Level 2: Information. This is akin to the assembly of the digits into a string of digits that represents my telephone number. This information has real use because it can enable direct contact with me personally.

Phase transition: Understanding. This is establishing a mental state capable of acquiring information and grasping its significance. It is key to being able to make use of the information through storage as knowledge, e.g. how you can use the information of a telephone number and apply it to an instrument to actually facilitate contact with someone.

Level 3: Knowledge. This is the information that you can acquire and retain in your memory for future recall when you have need. In the case of the telephone number, as knowledge, you can use it without reference to a lookup source, and apply it any time to make contact with the owner of the number.

Level 4: Wisdom. This is perhaps the highest level when you not only retain information in memory, but also know how best to use it, when and in what circumstances. Generally, wisdom seems only to be acquired through experience. For example, don't telephone me after lunch because I am probably having a nap and will not be sympathetic.

Nowhere have I seen such a complete framework presented but then I may not have been looking in the right places.

Wisdom of the elderly is a major asset

If the foregoing is true, then in the context of the elderly, their major asset is their wisdom borne of experience. So, we should not be expecting youngsters to come to us for information as they did in "the old days" (if they ever did). After all they can get plenty of that, and more up-to-date no doubt, from the Internet. Instead, we should realize that we have wisdom to offer.

The problem with wisdom is how you package it. If you package it as "advice", kids don't like being told what to do so that really doesn't fly. Perhaps we need to promote a new approach. How about presenting wisdom as competitive advantage (I know something that you don't know). So, perhaps the watchword should be: "Go to grandpa (or grandma) for his (or her) pearls of wisdom and outsmart your peers!"

We're almost back to the ancient Indian tradition of handing down our ancestral history through story telling - but in a modern context.

What then, about retirement of the elders?

This is a thorny issue because in the narrow confines of an employment work place, it is understandable that younger people will be looking for positions to move up into, especially if they perceive themselves as more energetic and more up-to-date and therefore more competent and efficient. I suspect that the resolution is site specific. Therefore, I think that the debate needs to be broadened to the issue of "contribution", whether paid or unpaid.

I note that some universities are now offering "Career Transition" workshops to show people how to develop late career opportunities. However, what are we doing generally to facilitate those opportunities and make them a serious reality for aging project managers?

In this respect, I do think that there are many things that could be done legislatively to greatly facilitate ordinary people working for themselves in their own time and pace after "retirement". What I have in mind is relief from some of the paperwork and liabilities of tax forms, regulations, trade and professional restrictions, even liabilities associated with employing young people part time and so on. All of these represent obstacles that are counterproductive.

The regulatory environment is a huge burden when it should be actually encouraging people to go on contributing by being gainfully occupied, preferably from their own homes. For a decade now we have had the enabling technology. But by and large we have a whole plethora of regulations and tax laws that appear to be only able to recognize full time permanent employment. This is to the detriment of the increasing numbers of self-employed as well as those who would like to start a small business as a "retirement activity", and employ a little help.

Consider the benefits: People who feel they have something to contribute and are able to do so, feel happier, healthier, and live longer free of health-service support. Moreover, a little extra cash never comes amiss to support hobbies - or even stave off welfare support. Heck, with this kind of change in legislative attitude, we might even get younger people employed earlier and more of them off the streets and learning something useful - like learning to manage projects!

What better way to pass on our "wisdom"?

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