Managing a Multigenerational Workforce: Age Matters

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 06-30-2011

Managing a Multigenerational Workforce

Different generations have always clashed about how to approach work and use various tools and technologies. But in an era of mind-bending and unrelenting change, the challenges--and the gulf between generations--have grown exponentially. As more and more young workers push the envelope on consumer devices, including smartphones, and organizations rush to adopt collaboration tools, social media, location-based services, cloud services, virtualization and other systems, many CIOs find themselves reeling.

"People bring radically different assumptions and preconceived notions into how they view technology and its role in the workplace," says Andrew McAfee, associate director and principal research scientist of the Center for Digital Business at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

"Conventional thinking has always been that the younger workers adapt to the tools and systems an organization already has in place. But this business model no longer applies. The rules are being rewritten on the fly."

Welcome to the new workplace. For CIOs and other business leaders, it's an era filled with risk and opportunity. Those who take too conservative an approach--severely restricting devices and software--may make an organization less attractive to young workers, while inhibiting overall productivity. On the other hand, embracing new tools too eagerly can result in security and compliance risks, IT headaches and disenfranchised workers.

Amid the chaos, it's critical to sort through the tangle of issues and develop a road map for dealing with these new and difficult times. "There are many myths, misconceptions and stereotypes to sort through," says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. "Smart organizations attempt to understand the underlying issues and ensure that various age groups aren't marginalized or excluded from the process. Workers of different ages have different things to offer to an organization."

Managing a Multigenerational Workforce: Age Matters

New tools and technologies have always created displacement and disconnect. However, these days, the landscape is changing faster than the view from a TGV train speeding through the French countryside. The consumerization of IT has reached full throttle, and with it comes a tangle of complex issues, including who has access to data, how to best manage the data and how to get groups with very different mind-sets to work together most effectively.

It's no news bulletin that attitudes across generations differ greatly. Consulting firm Accenture describes Millennials--those ranging from their mid-teens to late twenties--as "rocking the foundation of information technology." In many cases, says Gary Curtis, chief technology strategist for Accenture, younger workers are thumbing their noses at IT policies, using nonstandard applications and "improving" things whenever and wherever they deem it necessary. There's a prevailing attitude that rules and policies are meant only for guidance, he notes.

An Accenture report, titled "Jumping the Boundaries of Corporate IT," found that 87 percent of U.S Millennials decide where they will work based on their ability to use state-of-the-art technology. Also, these individuals expect to use their own technology at work and tap into their preferred technology apps regardless of any compliance policy. A staggering 61 percent use social networking services that aren't supported by their IT department. In addition, 43 percent tap into nonsupported instant messaging, 31 percent rely on rogue open-source technologies and 26 percent use their own online collaboration tools.

At the other end of the cubicle row are Boomers and some Gen-Xers. A 2010 Pew survey found that only 20 percent of adults between ages 50 and 64 use social networking sites on a daily basis, up about 10 percent from the previous year. However, a 2008 AARP survey shows that older workers aren't quite the Luddites that some would make them out to be. It found that only 26 percent of older workers report that they have difficulty keeping up with the new technology required to do their jobs, and a similar proportion (29 percent) express resistance to learning new skills at this stage of their careers. (For pointers on how to make the most of your multigenerational workforce, see "5 Ways to Narrow the Age Gap.")

MIT Sloan's McAfee says the challenges extend beyond attitudes and the way different age groups think about technology. Radically different taxonomies and data structures have created a need to work in new ways--and use different technologies and tools as the navigation system. "People have to connect to data pools that simply didn't exist in the past," he says.

The advantage that many younger workers have, Accenture's Curtis says, is that their minds are wired for technology because they've been digitally immersed from a young age. "They only know a world with global connections and data streaming in every direction all the time," he adds.

Managing a Multigenerational Workforce: Closing the Gap


A starting point for navigating this brave new world, Boston College's Pitt-Catsouphes says, is to recognize and respect differences while avoiding stereotypes. "It's important to understand that people have grown up in different eras and have different ways of thinking about work and technology," she says. "But it doesn't mean that older workers can't learn new systems and that every young person is a technology guru."

MIT Sloan's McAfee argues that the consumerization of IT isn't going away and that eschewing it--and turning off younger workers--puts an organization at a distinct competitive disadvantage. "Executives must alter their thinking and modify their ideas and expectations--even though this is the opposite of what many of them believe," he says. "In many cases, Millennials are on the right track with the way they want to use technology in their jobs. They're holding a flashlight to the future." (For a look at how one company is addressing mobility in the workplace, see "Connecting a Multigenerational Workforce.")

It's critical for organizations to address multi-generational challenges, Accenture's Curtis says. First, he recommends developing a well-reasoned and balanced technology policy and ensuring that employees read and understand it. (For a look at how one company addressed this issue, see "Policy Matters at Unisys.") "Unfortunately, many companies lack policies, or they're entirely incomprehensible or unreasonable," Curtis says. "It needs to be in plain language rather than legalese. Employees must know why various provisions are important."

Second, it's critical to provide training to workers--particularly older employees who may be well-versed in using email and Web tools, but are lagging in areas such as social media and crowdsourcing. Many younger workers, Curtis notes, solve problems by integrating colleagues and friends into the process. As a result, some organizations have latched onto the idea of younger workers reverse-mentoring older workers. At the same time, younger workers can gain a greater appreciation for the business and security issues that prevent the unrestrained use of personal technology.

Finally, it's important to rethink security and threat management. Clinton Smith, manager of IT risk and compliance for professional services provider Grant Thornton LLP, argues that organizations must focus on opportunities as well as risks. "It's critical to protect the data rather than the device," he argues. "Trying to build the ultimate padlock is both impractical and inefficient." Consequently, some organizations are focusing heavily on endpoint security and a more holistic protection model. Others, such as IBM, are building app stores with approved software.

Yet, in the end, there's no way to build airtight rules and policies that guarantee security. Nor can we assure that every application, method and technique used by younger workers benefits the organization. Savvy CIOs, Curtis says, recognize that the tech genie is out of the bottle and the physics of the 20th century no longer apply. Forward-thinking CIOs view the situation with open eyes and an open mind, and they embrace the opportunity to innovate.

There's certainly no turning back. "Executives might find younger workers and the way they use technology somewhat challenging," Curtis concludes. However, "they're guiding the way to the future of work. They can serve as intelligent critics. They can provide enormous insights. Wise business leaders listen to them and learn from them."