Coreworx attended 2 very interesting conferences this month focusing exclusively on power generation plants. The first one was the Outage Management for Power Plants (OMPP) Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, which focused on fossil fueled plants. The second one was the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Utility Conference in Hollywood, Florida. Despite the various differences between fossil and nuclear power plants, it was interesting to observe that owners and operators from both sectors share a deep concern about knowledge management and its impact on the future of their plants and how they would perform successfully in the future.
The term 'knowledge management' means different things to different people, but in this context, the emphasis was around retention of knowledge as the older generation of managers retire and the new generation enters the workforce.
A number of speakers at the conference, from both sectors, were 20-30 year veterans at their respective plants. Some speakers had even been at their plants when it was first commissioned, 30 to 40 years ago. Coversations at these events revealed that it's an entirely different experience for those who have not only worked in a plant for 30 years, but were also around the day it was built versus walking into a 30-40 year old plant you know nothing about and trying to manage its operations. Interestingly enough, most of these older plants don’t even have accurate as-built drawings, so in a sense if you haven’t been there since the beginning, you don’t exactly know what it is that you are managing, yet you are expected to deliver intense projects like turnarounds and outages on time and on budget. Of course, there is a lot of discussion around creating as-built drawings with the use of 3D laser scanners and various other tools, but that's a discussion for another day.
So the million dollar question (literally) that plant owners are raising is: “What are we going to do when our lifelong plant experts retire?”
With so much reliance on personal knowledge and experience for running a plant, and with so few documented procedures, what chance do up-and-coming managers really have of being successful at their jobs? The “wisdom” of both conference audiences was apparent and it would seem that this is an issue that’s not going to disappear on it’s own. We’ll know that the industry has a solution when we see a larger percentage of “less-seasoned” managers showing up at these conferences, and the presentations having less to do with personal experience from first days of a plant, 30 years ago and instead more related to optimizing plant processes.
In all fairness, the industry is aware of the problem and is taking steps to address the issue. For example, there was an entire track at the ANS conference, facilitated by Vince Gilbert of Excel Services Corp., dedicated to Knowledge Management. One study, by Maria Lacal and Tony Marco from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station focused on the human factors involved in knowledge management. They indicated that retirement is not the only issue. Their plant had seen staff turnover of approximately 800 people in a 4-5 year period – this at a plant that only staffed 750-850 people; that’s a complete plant staff turnover in less than 5 years. They presented a comprehensive 20-year forecast of their staffing requirements, and in light of the retiring workforce, increasing national and international job opportunities leading skilled workers elsewhere, and the more ‘mobile’ attitude of the next generation of staff not likely to stay tied a company their entire career, it doesn’t appear that staff turnover issues will go away.
Most of the attendees at the conferences agreed that they need to take a proactive approach to addressing the knowledge management "brain drain". Many are starting to look for ways to put systems and processes in place to capture the wisdom and knowledge of the experienced managers, provide some level of automation, and replace the need for “personal judgment” by implementing best practices. This is an ideal time for owners and operators to look to software vendors to step up and provide systems to capture, manage, and transfer this knowledge.
The new generations of managers grew up with computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones and are very comfortable using software. It’s time to transition away from increasingly transient human experience, and massive and error-prone ‘Excel files’ that only a few people in an organization can work with, and move towards building best practices through user-friendly software solutions built to not only support the knowledge management component, but also help in automating various processes that allow project mangers the time to do what they really want to do, which is to manage their projects.
What was very encouraging at these conferences was that the more experienced managers are open to change. They understand that status quo is not the answer, that things are getting more complex and that there are inefficiencies in their existing systems. With their support and wisdom, the enthusiasm of the younger generation of managers, and effective software solutions, there is a lot of opportunity for our less experienced plant and project managers to excel in their new careers.