What happens to a company if it abruptly loses a significant percentage of its most experienced employees? This is the conundrum companies across the U.S. are facing as baby boomers — the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — approach the end of their working lives. Siemens, one of the world’s largest manufacturing and electronics companies, and its energy management division has turned to a group of Clemson students to mitigate the impact by researching ways to pass invaluable institutional knowledge from outgoing baby boomers to incoming Millennials.
Kevin Yates, leader of the energy management division for Siemens in the U.S. and Canada and a 1994 Clemson graduate, identified the problem when he took a step back and realized a good portion of his most seasoned employees will soon retire, and there was no plan in place to address their absence.
He knew just the place to go for help.
“At Siemens we value our strategic university partners, and Clemson is certainly one of those. Once I became aware of the Watt Family Innovation Center and the creative inquiry program, I felt it was a natural fit to engage their students and faculty to help us solve a real-world challenge,” said Yates. “A year ago, our business and human resources partners knew that we had a problem to address and, though we were working on it internally, we recognized the value of getting outside expertise to most effectively transition this knowledge. I knew it was a perfect opportunity to get a cross-functional team in academics to work with us.”
Siemens made a donation to the university to fund the project, and assistant marketing professor Anastasia Thyroff and associate marketing professor Jennifer Siemens (no relation to the company) were tapped to create a creative inquiry undergraduate research project to find solutions.
“This is a huge problem, and Siemens is incredibly invested in figuring it out,” said Thyroff. “Kevin is innovative — he’s on top of this, which shows great foresight because the whole country is going to go through this.”
According to a study by Pew Research Center, which broke down population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau in April 2016, there are now 74.9 million living Baby Boomers, who were defined as anyone age 51 to 69 years in 2015. That balances almost exactly with the 75.4 million living Millennials — the generation including anyone who was age 18 to 34 years in 2015 – who will step into the open positions left behind as Baby Boomers begin to retire en masse.
Thyroff and Siemens engaged six marketing students for the project and spent the first half of the semester teaching them methods for marketing research. The group practiced interviewing, running focus groups, ethnography (the study of living experiences) and coding.
At the end of the first semester, Siemens offered summer internships to seniors Tanner Parsons and Helen McDowell, students in the project.
“They treated their internships as ethnography, so through the process of learning about what it takes to be an intern at Siemens, they were helping us with our study,” said Thyroff.
The two internships offered a valuable glimpse at two very different company locations, said Thyroff. McDowell was in Siemens’ marketing department headquarters in Atlanta, which provided a prime opportunity to collect broad data about the company. Parsons spent the summer at a Siemens’ branch office in Tampa, Fla., working with a tight-knit group of seasoned sales engineers. He was able to observe the organic relationships that develop in the smaller pockets of a large corporation that are often the glue that holds a company together.
Meanwhile, the team interviewed 41 Siemens employees, each with either less than five years or more than 10 years of experience with the company, individually and in focus groups. They combined the transcripts with the data collected by Parsons and McDowell during their internships.
“One unique aspect of this project is that it forces students to be accountable to another entity, not just their professor,” said Siemens. “Knowing that they are coming up with strategies that a company might actually implement is immensely rewarding to students, and also to us as teachers and mentors.”
The students’ research revolved around three questions:
- What is the most effective way to transfer knowledge between a seasoned employee to someone with little industry knowledge?
- How do you implement this transfer of knowledge across all aspects of a business?
- What is the role of technology in this knowledge transition?
The result was a 600-page interview transcript that they then meticulously sifted through, focusing on key words and themes, to find actionable items to present to Yates and his colleagues.
They took their findings to Siemens’ energy management headquarters in Atlanta to present them to a group of about 20 high-level managers.
Despite some nervous jitters, the students thought the presentation went smoothly, thanks to many late nights and grueling rehearsals leading up to the big day. Afterward, the managers kept the students for another hour for a question-and-answer session, peppering them with inquiries and follow-up suggestions as they would for any of their business peers. The students conducted themselves as professionals and had no trouble fielding every question.
The result of the students’ work was a list of actionable items, some of which could be implemented immediately, to help the company keep its momentum as it loses its most tenured employees.
One recommendation was for Siemens management to encourage new hires and seasoned employees to socialize. On-the-clock social gatherings ensure higher attendance than after-hour gatherings and encourage more meaningful relationships – a point that might seem obvious on the surface but has much deeper meaning in the context of knowledge transfer.
Other recommendations included treating interns as full-time employees, which encourages investment in the company, and getting rid of the many work-space cubicles for a more open office environment.
All of these changes, the research suggested, would facilitate more organic mentorships, leading to mentors passing on the kind of knowledge to their younger counterparts that can’t always be typed up and handed over.
“There are a number of aspects to this,” said Cris Higgins, head of human resources for Siemens energy management, mobility, and building technology divisions. “It’s not as much about practical knowledge, but more of the tribal knowledge that these senior employees have from being here from 10 to even 40-plus years. I myself have over 20 years’ experience and trying to pass that knowledge on to another HR person is not accomplished with a one-time meeting. Not only do you have to transfer knowledge, you have to transfer your networking, your relationships, and your ‘know-how’ of getting things done.”
The caliber of research was so good that it was easy to forget it was done by undergraduate students and not a marketing research firm, said Thyroff.
“We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a student project,” she said. “The students took incredible ownership. They worked hard and did such a good job that it’s hard to believe they aren’t marketing research experts. They’re learning as they go, and they are doing a phenomenal job.”
Yates agreed with Thyroff’s assessment.
“They absolutely delivered and hit the mark,” he said. “The value they created, given their limited experience, was outstanding. The research they have provided has been very insightful. There were several ‘a-ha’ moments from our staff during the presentation.”
The findings of the study thus far have been very valuable, yet it’s a three-year project. In 2018 Thyroff and Siemens will assemble the next team of students to build upon the findings of the first group and turn up further revelations that will aid companies across the U.S. and the world.
“How this program works and what we get out of can be a model to closely look at across the rest of Siemens throughout the U.S.,” said Yates. “I look forward to continuing to work with Clemson for the next two years to learn even more.”