The death of experience

As you know, I spent last week at Amplfy09, an innovation festival hosted by AMP of Australia. At one of the events, I had the chance to sit with some financial planners and their clients. The question I posed was this:

Which do you think has more brain power: 25 twenty-three olds (i.e., brand new graduates) with a year’s experience each, or one 65 year old with 25 years of experience?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the crowd of 23 year olds has more brainpower, but the real question is whether the value of experience outweighs the obvious advantage in mental watts of the group.

My thinking is it does not, and here is why.

Experience is a result of the formation of mental models about the way things work. Essentially, one observes that certain actions produce certain effects, and over time one learns to generalise so that even actions which are only marginally related to those previously observed can result in reasonable predictions of outcomes. Because the mind has limited abilities to accept information and process it, developing experience is something that takes a large number of years.

This is why you generally reserve very accountable positions in organisations for those who have lots of experience.

But try this experiment. Get a group of new graduates together, and confront them with a crisis. You will be amazed when you watch what happens: instead of some alpha-male/female attempting to take control of the situation, the group optimises itself, using rapid fire burst of communication, to solve the problem synergistically. It looks like chaos, and you wonder whether or not anything will ever come of it, but invariably very good outcomes do. And the order that emerges from all this chaos tends to be a highly optimised resolution of the problem at hand.

I know this, because I’ve had lots of time to study our new workforce at the bank, and they do things in quite different ways to those that my peers and I do things. We try to take control, to lead. They don’t bother with any of that, and self organise into a non-structure that produces results, which are often unexpected.

Coming back to my original question, then, the value of experience as a differentiator in this case is very much reduced. Because you have 25 minds processing things in parallel, the amount of information that can be involved in a mental model is incomparably greater than that for a 65 year old with experience. 25 minds working together can accept all the evidence a 65 year old accumulates over their career in hours or days, and instead of building models over time, they do it in real-time. The result will tend to approximate the best available outcome given a much broader analysis of data.

Here’s another experiment you can try if you don’t believe me: talk with a group of twenty-somethings about a project they’ve been working on, and ask them for detail of things they didn’t work on personally. They’ll have no clue at all what their peers are doing, and will refer you onwards. They don’t care what their peers in the crowd are doing, because they have self-optimised their handoffs and interactions so they don’t have to care.

That’s quite different to the way that I, for example, would approach something. I need to know that the whole outcome is under control. I need to know the detail is in hand. And I must certainly feel able to explain the whole project to anyone who asks me. I am accountable; therefore, I must know what is going on.

In other words, I am unable to harness the power of multiple minds in any way which makes the whole greater than the parts.

Now, before I leave this topic, I want to make one last point, and it is this: the communications and collaborations technologies in the hands of our new workforce already let them collaborate at lightning speed. But these are not technologies that one expects in any way to slow down their advance. The power of crowds of young people to do things previously reserved for only older, more experienced people will continue to grow, probably in an exponential fashion.

Consequently, I predict the death of experience as the defining decision factor in who gets what job in our workforce within the next 10-15 years. That’s the timeframe, by the way, that significant numbers of these collaborating crowds of young people will start to win their first senior jobs away from the old guard non-collaborators who presently rule the roost.

I’ll close this post with another discussion I had at Amplify last week, and it was with a senior executive I’d made these points to. He wanted to know, if the end of experience was nigh, what would happen to all the older workers out there? Now, I don’t have a convenient answer to that, because I don’t know. But what I have observed so far is that collaborating groups in this age band tend to make collectively moral decisions which include the social best interests of most players.

The probable result? Our experienced workforce will get taken care of, whilst at the same time, they are pushed to the edges of major decision making. They will be reference encyclopaedias that can be called on for historical facts quickly and easily, but won’t be core to the actual process of creating substantial change.

11 Responses to“The death of experience”

  1. June 29, 2009 at 7:55 am #

    While I agree that collaboration will rule the roost in the future, I’m not sure that this means older workers will get sidelined.
    I’ve always had a problem with the layered nature of labels like Gen X, Gen Y. A vertical split like NOEs would make more sense (though the definition of NEO is unfortunately tied to income), and let us recognize that not all Gen Ys are collaboration machines, and some Baby Boomers quite like collaboration.
    The rise of collaboration will drive dominance from the command-and-control traditionalists (who live in every generation), and this doesn’t mean that a particular generation (layer) will be entirely disenfranchised.

  2. June 29, 2009 at 8:21 am #

    Interesting post. I dare say, however, that you may well end up with similar results with 25 people of any age group. I agree with Peter in that innovative approaches to problem solving are more likely to arise amongst teams with open attitudes to collaboration – regardless of age.
    But there is no doubt that the next generation of managers will transform the way that we do business. Will this devalue the role of experience in senior managers? Perhaps. Decision making is only one aspect of leadership – and when the fun times of making decisions are over and the hard work of accountability, implementation and communication/reporting begin, groups can easily fall apart. I have a feeling that those groups who DO stay together will have built substantial experiences working together. And perhaps that is the future of our workforce.

  3. Raf
    June 29, 2009 at 11:33 am #

    Collaboration is king but experience is helpful in moderating and guiding the feedback processes necessary for creating efficient systems.
    A few well chosen words can be as good as a day’s work. Sounds good to me 🙂

  4. June 29, 2009 at 11:50 am #

    Too true Gavin. Many managers seem to have forgotten that the secret of management is making a timely decision, and then making it work. Collaboration cuts through the academic exercises that often pass for decision making, but it doesn’t address the (potentially greater) challenge of making the decision work.

  5. June 30, 2009 at 2:35 am #

    I’m not sure you haven’t missed the outcome of “tend to make collectively moral decisions which include the social best interests of most players.” – I think this is a very apt evaluation of the ‘crowd-sourcing’ effect that works in groups that don’t know each other well. Over time, the ‘most players’ caveat leads to loss of power as individuals are pushed out of the group for not agreeing with the normalised outcomes, and the ‘tend to’ explains high-level failures with no sense of personal responsibility. ‘Experience’ is often linked directly to ‘accountability’, which is why companies are happy to pay for it – “I make the decision, and the buck stops with me”.
    Just my $0.05.

  6. June 30, 2009 at 3:24 am #

    Nice point John.
    (One of) ENRON’s characteristics was a separation of personal and business ethics; “I’m an ethical person” had little bearing on optimizing business decisions. Will crowd-sourcing and collaborative approaches witness a similar failure due to the separation of personal and herd/crowd ethics? And if so (and more importantly) can we prevent it?

  7. June 30, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    Ideas by committee, a sort of innovation polit-bureau?
    A post worthy of a public sector organisation.
    Have 90 years of communism and three series of the Apprentice taught you nothing, James?
    Committees can implement, but individuals innovate.
    Talent can’t be created by replication, one idiot times 25 makes 25 idiots.
    Since when does 3 years getting pissed, earning a degree in geography pitched at a level that could have been attained by a 10 year old 20 years ago predispose people for a career in banking innovation?
    And have you forgotten who taught these graduates of yours?
    That’s right, old farts.
    The only difference, those old farts didn’t have the experience of working with crowds, unlike the people who built the companies you work for.
    And while you stopped short of using an ice pick on your unfortunate oldies, this is a very sad post, none the less.
    Maybe if you give enough graduates a pen they may eventually write the full works of Shakespeare. But even if they did, it would have been done before.

  8. July 1, 2009 at 7:01 am #

    Gosh, I seem to have stirred up a hornets nest here.
    I think the point I’d make is that these are my observations based on watching many of our new graduate workforce that joined the bank recently.
    They are quite different to what has gone before.
    Perhaps I generalise too much saying that experience is dead, but I also have too many internal examples where these young people have created outcomes *better* than their experienced peers to ignore the fact that something new is going on.
    To those who are threatened – and let me tell you when I talk about this internally, it gets me raised eye-brows to say the least – I apologize for the discomfort.

  9. Kevin N
    July 8, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    While i’m impressed with AMPs commitment to innovation, I’d rather be getting my financial advice – one of the key services that AMP offers – from a 65 year old with 25 years experience, than from a team of 25 people aged 23 each with one year experience.

  10. Chris Hayes
    July 11, 2009 at 6:16 pm #

    Interesting article as usual, James. It’s always refreshing and impressive to witness young peoples’ innovation, especially when they they don’t obey the rules of engagement older people follow. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that this is not a new phenomenon; each new generation has its own way of thinking, sometimes that takes a giant leap forward, other times development is slower. But the underlying fact is that that ‘new’ modus operendi will pretty soon become the ‘old’ MO. So those youngsters you saw will soon enough become the old farts, to be replaced by their sons and daughters. The only question is: how fast will the pace of change be?
    My hope is that we learn how to work together better, to harness the unique skills of each age group to produce something that’s more than just the sum of its parts.

  11. July 12, 2009 at 8:30 am #

    I think the young people James is dealing with are of the Organisation Kid variety 🙂 My friends are more IPODs .
    I was once a banking intern, and what surprised me was how homogenous our opinions were. I think it’s because our only real base for a making decisions were a few years of standardised education. That and we hadn’t started diverging on the career ladder yet…
    The first two years out of uni are a peak point for ‘dynamic conformity’. (Something the world might do better having more of.) After that, career goals start shifting away from learning and making a good impression, to getting an office with a door and a good pension. In 15 years I imagine James’s uber-collaborators will be ground-down 36 yr olds. Human nature, and his bank’s remuneration structure will see to that.
    Sad, but true …

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