How to Bridge the Generation Gap in Today’s Evolving Workforce

Disruptive IT Trends4 minutes readSep 20th, 2010

What does it take to attract the best and brightest people to your organization? Increasingly, it’s not just about the salary and benefits you offer. It’s about the consumer technology tools you provide your employees to do their work.

That’s the case, at least, if you want to win over the new generation of tech-smart millennials entering today’s workforce. These people, now in their 20s, grew up with consumer computing technology and want to use these same tools in their work. In fact, in a recent study sponsored by Unisys and conducted by IDC, up to 40 percent of this group indicated that availability of certain technologies at work would be a make-or-break factor in their decision to take a job.

These tech-savvy workers can bring a company tremendous energy and innovation, so it’s imperative to accommodate their preferred work styles. But focusing exclusively on their desires can present the risk of alienating older workers — those baby boomers who drove their own wave of enterprise IT. These older workers bring valuable experience and institutional knowledge to the workplace, and want to be called on to use those skills to advance the organization’s business objectives, just as their younger counterparts do.

So what’s the best way to strike a balance between the considerable expectations of those two groups in order to avoid a generational clash and get the greatest business value from their combined and, indeed, complementary skills?

There’s no single way, of course. The potential paths to rapprochement are as diverse as the organizations in a given enterprise.

However, there is one technique that I think can only help with the transition: Using a benign form of creative tension, give both groups incentives to learn from each other, and combine skills to deliver an end product whose value is more than the sum of its parts.

You do this by fostering a mutual-mentoring situation between employees. Arrange for a thought leader from the old guard to be personally responsible for working with a younger counterpart. For example, in an IT department, the veteran can introduce the younger worker to the nuances of transactional applications and instruct him or her in the methodologies the organization uses and the business processes embedded in the application.

Ditto the reverse. Also arrange for a younger worker to help the senior staffer “get” social networking tools such as wikis, Facebook, and Twitter. They can then collaborate to see how social-networking capabilities can be integrated into the business applications they’re developing in order to add value for their clients and their business.

We’re doing something very much like that in my engineering group at Unisys, where we have many smart, dedicated, long-timers as well as a group of sharp younger workers. We’ve begun an innovation contest. It has very modest prizes, but it provides a valuable environment for learning new technologies and proven processes.

This initiative isn’t meant to use new talent to pave the cowpath. We aren’t asking new workers to find ways to spiff up COBOL applications. Instead, we’re encouraging the mixed teams to create ways for mainframe applications to be easily accessible to a user with an iPhone, iPad, Android, or other smart device of their choice. We’re incentivizing them to figure out how to integrate social networking platforms and build prototypes. The intent is to deflect potential friction between generations into a consolidated innovation capability that makes work fun and benefits the whole organization.

Ultimately, this drive to foster multi-generational collaboration among information workers is aimed at serving customers better. By taking the needs and expectations of newer workers into account, we can stay in step with the corresponding evolution of customer requirements while building on the value that older workers have become adept at delivering. This is the way that all your stakeholders, internal and external, can benefit from consumerization of IT.