GENERATION X IN THE EXECUTIVE SUITE
Generation X or Gen X is the age cohort between the Boomers and the Millennials. Experts estimate that there are approximately 51 million Generation Xers in the United States. Just as Generation X was entering the teen years, the personal computer arrived on the scene. As a result, this generation entered the workforce with a good understanding of computer applications and how computers are supposed to work.
From a work perspective, Generation X members are not driven by team purpose or idealistic notions. This group has been classified as self-interested and lacking any sentimental attachment to work. Employers can benefit from acquiring a greater understanding some of Generation X’s personality traits:
- Entrepreneurial. Given their independent nature, many Gen Xers are self-employed. This group values resourcefulness. As a result, they appreciate technologies that enable them to make the most of limited time.
- Work/life balance. Because Generation Xers seek a stable work/life balance, telecommuting options must offer more than simple voicemail and email connectivity. This group demands greater remote access to workplace resources. This may translate into virtual private network access to enterprise data systems, real-time communication tools, and technologies that duplicate the workplace desktop. However, telecommuting is often frowned upon by Boomer managers. This is because many Baby Boomers value personal contact and prefer to manage through direct supervision. As more Generation X employees advance to the executive ranks, more organizations are likely to accommodate telework models.
- Working smarter and harder. One of the reasons that work/life balance is so important to Generation X is because they are working longer hours than their parents and for less money. As a result, both time and productivity are very important to Generation X employees. Technologies that save time are attractive to this demographic group, but tools that require excessive interaction in the name of user friendliness annoy Generation Xers.
When Generation Xers move into leadership roles in the workplace, their understanding of technology is often a major asset for organizations. However, their self-interested nature can be a drawback. Generation Xers must guard against projecting their own priorities into the workplace through their technology choices. They must be mindful of the diversity in the workplace and take time to bridge the digital age gap. This can be done through dialogue and cultural adaptation.
BLENDING OLDER WORKERS INTO TODAY’S WORKPLACE
In today’s competitive employment market, older workers’ expertise and mature point of view are attractive to organizations. To adapt to the connected workplace, older employees must accept a set of values and practices associated with technology. Training programs are one way to effectively facilitate this transition. Training is a valuable approach because older workers are often reluctant to ask younger co-workers for help. This reluctance may be related to issues of control, authority, or social dynamics. It is important to recognize, however, that standard training programs often create barriers to full participation. Sometimes training courses ignore cultural issues that are tied to generational values, or they may convey information in ways that reinforce older workers’ perceptions about technology and complexity.
Salkowitz uses Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) in New York City to illustrate how technology training can be structured to aid older workers. OATS is a non-profit organization that seeks to engage, train, and support older adults in using technology. The organization conducts classes at community centers and retirement communities. One of the major components of the OATS program is workforce development training.
OATS discovered that training is most successful if it leverages older learners’ strengths but also addresses their weaknesses related to technology. The organization’s major findings include the following:
- Do not overlook the basics. Standard training courses often assume a certain amount of familiarity with basic computer skills. This is a major objection expressed by older students. As a result, OATS has developed a curriculum that begins with the basics and covers information in a step by step manner. Repetition of concepts is also widely used. In general, training courses for older learners should not assume prior technological knowledge. In addition, instructors should not move on to new topics until students have demonstrated that they considerably understand the fundamentals.
- Incorporate content that is relevant to older students. Too often, computer courses use examples based on popular culture. These do not resonate with older learners. OATS deliberately develops content and exercises that would be relevant to students.
- Pay attention to ergonomic and economic factors. Many older students have physical limitations which should be accommodated in the classroom. In addition, students may not have fast computers or Internet connections at home. OATS classes avoid economic biases and excessive technology requirements.
- Present information slowly and in depth. One of the strengths of older students is their ability to process and retain large volumes of technical information. For this to occur, however, the information must be presented clearly and in a linear fashion. Long-term retention is possible when information is conveyed slowly and reinforced repeatedly.
- Provide documentation. An older learner processes information in a linear manner, yet the Internet is a nonlinear medium. To address this disconnect, it is important to provide step-by-step instructions and written documentation for students.
- Address the frustration threshold. OATS defines the frustration threshold as the negative reaction older students possess toward technology that appears to be overly complex. As technology becomes more advanced and feature-rich, the frustration threshold threatens to become a larger barrier. One approach is to give older users a realistic sense of what to expect, including how often systems may break. Another option is to pair older learners with a younger partner who can help them become more comfortable.
When older students have a safe place to learn where they do not feel exposed to business or professional risk, they are very capable of understanding new technologies. OATS’ experience shows that overcoming initial discomfort leads to rapid learning, and starting off slowly with the basics will prove beneficial to overall learning.
YOUNGER WORKERS AS A SOURCE OF STRATEGIC INSIGHTS
Although the Millennials may not impact companies for another 10 to 15 years, it is important for employers to recognize that this generation will absolutely change the face of the workplace. Salkowitz highlights Microsoft’s Information Worker Board of the Future. This is an initiative that was designed to identify Millennials’ capabilities, desires, and expectations when they join the workforce. The resulting vision of the future workplace has been used by Microsoft in customer discussions and as the basis for product development, employee recruitment, and human resource planning.
The Information Worker Board of the Future was established in 2004. Members forecasted events they expected to occur over the next ten years. In a scenario planning exercise, the group articulated uncertainties related to the future of work and driving forces. The goal of the scenario planning was to develop different strategies to address as many of the anticipated scenarios as possible. Microsoft expects that this work will minimize the chance of being blindsided by a disruptive change.
The first step in scenario planning is to identify which aspects of the global environment are uncertain and which uncertainties are most significant. The Board of the Future 2004 identified 85 uncertainties, and then identified which ones were most uncertain relative to the future of information work. The group tested each uncertainty to determine which led to the most challenging future scenarios.
The top three priorities identified by the Millennials in this group were education, the digital divide, and basic information work literacy. This was not surprising as these priorities reflect Millennials’ core generational values. They embrace the linkage between knowledge and success. In addition, they are committed to social justice, as well as the need for collaboration and information access as precursors to other fields of activity.
Since the Board of the Future 2004’s findings proved so valuable, Microsoft recruited a second group of young people in 2005. This group focused on two questions: (1) the attitudes of Millennials toward work and the underlying drivers for those attitudes, and (2) how education can prepare students more effectively for the workplace.
The Board of the Future 2005 created three outputs. They interpreted survey data from the prior Board of the Future group. In addition, they engaged in scenario planning and created characters to complement the narratives generated by Microsoft’s internal teams. Last, they created a forecast of the workplace in 2015 based on their interpretation of the survey data and the scenarios.
The group generated recommendations from the perspective of individuals, society, and technology providers. They emphasized that individuals will value work/life balance and will be attracted to companies where technology is used to integrate work with life. In addition, government and non-governmental organizations should strive to provide ubiquitous connectivity. This will help to reduce inequality between economic and demographic groups. From an education perspective, the Board viewed knowledge skills as the cost of entry to the new global economy. As a result, they believed that public and private schools should distribute those skills as widely as possible. The group recommended student-centered curriculum, problem based learning, teaching over the web, and content sharing among teachers.
The Board of the Future 2005 concluded that the information workplace in 2015 will have the following characteristics:
- The ability to work anyplace and anytime will be seamless and easy.
- The technology user experience will be integrated, adaptive, and seamless.
- Working with abstract and complex data will become easier due to new visualization techniques and automatic translation.
- Home-based technology will converge and incorporate all forms of entertainment.
- Learning will be available continuously and on-demand. Learning will be driven by the individual.
Microsoft benefitted from the Board of the Future in multiple ways. It provided new perspectives to the internal strategic planning process which validated some conclusions and caused others to be reassessed. In addition, the Board’s scenario planning work was folded into the scenarios that are used by Microsoft’s vision and leadership team. These scenarios are used in future vision whitepapers, for company planning purposes, and in strategic level executive briefing sessions held with customers. From a publicity perspective, the Board of the Future stimulated positive media coverage for Microsoft and positioned the company as a forward-thinking leader.
BRIDGING THE DIGITAL AGE GAP
Diverse generations in the workplace have different values and do things differently from one another. The digital age gap is defined as a conflict between people and technology. It is based on people’s expectations, experiences, priorities, and the ways they understand work and the broader world. Successfully managing across this gap requires companies to harmonize the strengths of different generations in the workforce and to use technology to unite the organization. Salkowitz suggests that to accomplish this, organizations should ask five questions:
- Is the company clearly explaining the benefits of technology?
- Is the company providing a business context for its technology policies?
- Is technology accessible to employees’ different work styles?
- Does the organizational culture support the broader technology strategy?
- Is the organization building bridges instead of walls?
Too often, organizations assume that if they make a technology tool available and explain the features, employees will use it. This type of assumption is often made by Generation X managers, since they adopt new technologies in this way. To avoid these problems, it can be helpful to provide tip sheets, step-by-step instructions, and style guides to older workers. Technology strategists should not assume that end user silence means that all is well. Organizations should proactively follow up with users and create non-threatening ways for less confident users to express concerns. With younger workers, it can be valuable to create a formal channel so they can contribute ideas about technology and practices. Organizations that engage with Millennials during planning are less likely to experience generational myopia. This type of activity also conveys a positive message about the company to the next generation of employees. Establishing mentoring relationships which enable younger employees to teach older ones about technology can also be productive. For these relationships to be successful, mentors must understand the importance for privacy and confidentiality. In the case of senior executives, it may be preferable to use an external mentor for privacy reasons.
As new technologies are implemented, organizations should budget for the cost of training, as well as licensing, integration, deployment, and technical support. It is essential that training address generational factors and be delivered in formats that are compatible with different users’ learning styles. Salkowitz proposes several design principles that make the introduction of new technologies less disruptive for workers. The first is to use customization to reduce complexity. For example, it may be possible to disable complex features or to implement templates that make new tools look more like their real-world counterparts. Second, companies could consider using alternative input methods for users without extensive computer knowledge. Tablet computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) convert handwriting to digital form with increasing precision. Third, it is beneficial to circulate knowledge tools throughout the organization. Companies will only enjoy the full benefits of collaboration and knowledge sharing when they are used across the entire organization.
It is also important to engage employees in a dialogue about technology policies and how they relate to the business. Some topics to include in this conversation include:
- A description of what content can be shared, and with whom.
- Information retention and privacy practices. These should be written in simple language, rather than complex legal text.
- The appropriate tone and language to use when communicating with different stakeholders, such as customers.
- Which applications can (and cannot) be installed on work computers and why.
- Challenges that might arise when implementing popular capabilities and work arounds, if they exist.
- Clear policies for resolving technology problems.
Company culture is another factor that cannot be overlooked when it comes to the adoption of technology. Technological changes that conflict with the prevailing culture are much more likely to be rejected. It is important to note that organizational culture is closely linked with the generational values of the company’s leadership, as well as its workforce.
Technologies that are especially likely to run into cultural problems include collaborative decision making tools, communities of practice, and knowledge management tools. Collaborative decision making through social networking tools can be threatening because it takes power away from senior employees. When implementing distributed decision making tools, organizations must determine how they will address the loss of power experienced by managers who feel overshadowed by the collaborative community. Communities of practice rely on trust to function. While the benefits of sharing information may be evident, participants may be reluctant to do so without a trusting relationship with other collaborators. To benefit from communities of practice, organizations must first address trust and technology issues. Knowledge management tools are essential for preserving information held by retiring workers. Although Web 2.0 applications provide easy and flexible ways to capture knowledge, people may not be motivated to use them. Many professional services organizations are now creating specific positions to support knowledge creation, learning, and retention.
When leadership teams respect the needs of all workers, it is possible to combine the technological knowledge of young employees with the knowledge of more mature employees. This enables firms to be more competitive, efficient, and responsive to external changes.