Bridging the IT Generation Gap

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 12-12-2007

Bridging the IT Generation Gap

When Martin Schneider visits the Reef surfwear company in San Diego, he knows the natives think of him as a "tucker from Greensboro."

Greensboro, N.C., is home to the corporate headquarters of VF Corp., the $6.1 billion apparel giant that has owned Reef since 2005.

"Tucker?" That means that Schneider, VF's CIO, tucks in his shirt, a rarity at laidback Reef. "Men wear shorts and flip-flops, they carry their iPods," Schneider says. All of which is fine by the folks back in the home office. "When we buy a company, we keep the culture intact," he says. "That might mean enabling Macs instead of Windows, or allowing people to come in early or late, depending on the surf conditions."

Reef's beach-bum vibe gives it a special feel, but in other ways the culture seems like the wave of the future, a future defined by a new generation of workers that brings different expectations to the job than their elders did, in everything from career paths to technology. "We're seeing the differences every day," Schneider says. "Younger workers don't talk about the long term. They need to be trained differently and managed differently from the people who came before them."

Sometimes called Generation Y or millennials, the cohort of people born after 1977 is making its presence felt in the workplace. It is a large group, numbering nearly 80 million, about the size of the post-World War II baby boom generation and far larger than the Generation X of 48 million born between 1965 and 1977. The implications of these numbers are profound, and have led to much hand-wringing in the executive suite: As the boomers begin to retire, finding younger workers to replace them will be critical, and making sure different generations can coexist in the workplace becomes increasingly important. If that doesn't happen, says Tammy Erickson, president of the Concours Institute consultancy and author of Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent, companies could find themselves without enough workers to keep the economy humming.

Ominously, some of the sharpest generational conflicts exist between Generations X and Y, the two younger groups. "I'm very worried about the ability of corporations to hold onto Xers, and many Xers are nervous about the future," Erickson says. For one thing, the sheer numbers of millennials guarantees them a measure of attention that their somewhat older colleagues have not received. For another, Generation Yers may work relatively easily with the boomers, who are about the age of their own parents, leaving the Generation X workers feeling frustrated and stuck in the middle.

Page 2: New Energy

New Energy

But the youth movement can be positive, too, bringing new energy and better ways of doing business to the enterprise, giving companies that manage the generational transition well a leg up on their rivals. "The ability of companies to understand these changes and not just look askance at them will help attract bright, creative people," says Chuck Cornelio, CIO at Lincoln Financial, the $9 billion Philadelphia insurer. "The more you can channel the positive aspects into the corporate world, the more you create a competitive advantage."

And managing across generations is an area in which technology organizations, rarely seen as hotbeds of social aptitude, have some built-in advantages in terms of adjusting to new ways and helping companies in transition. Tech culture, often informal and built around constant change, overlaps in significant ways with the worldview of younger workers. "There is a style of technology management that matches the expectations of younger workers," says Mike Sutten, CIO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, the $5.2 billion Miami cruise line. "Trends like casual dress and adapting the latest technologies are the way it's always been here."

The nature of technology work, which is often project-oriented, allows people more flexibility than other jobs. "Solutions may be easier to find in the technology world," says Erickson.

A word of caution: Making sweeping statements about tens of millions of individuals, however close in age they are, is a dangerous game. "It's degrading to that generation, as it would be to any group, to just pull out stereotypes, add some stats and flash to them, and think you've said something meaningful," says Corey Jamison, president of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, which specializes in diversity issues. "If someone made generalizations about, say, African-American women or Asian men, you'd be like, 'What?'"

Point taken. The anecdotes and observations in this article do not define a generation. They do, however, reveal something of the real-life experiences of IT managers, academics and consultants as they cope with actual issues in a changing workplace.

Page 3: Learning on the Job

Learning on the Job

Learning on the Job

Differences in learning styles can present sharp contrasts between generations. "The way you do training or development has to be different today," says Mike Roberto, a management professor at Bryant University who consults with numerous well-known companies. "The old, standard classroom style increasingly is not the way to go." Younger workers tend to want hands-on, experiential learning. They grew up playing video games that they figured out by playing, with no dependence on written instructions, and they aren't into sitting around for lectures—although they may well listen to them on their own time, via iPod. That reality led package deliverer UPS to create an experience- based training program, complete with mock houses for practice deliveries.

But older workers may feel left behind by newer methods of training. For example, Roberto uses as a training tool a multimedia case study of the Challenger space shuttle disaster that he developed while teaching at Harvard Business School. It's been well received at numerous companies, including Apple, where European employees used it this summer in a training exercise. Participants watch videos, read actual e-mails sent between NASA staffers and contractors, and even see reproductions of NASA phone messages as they get into the roleplaying assignment. But some companies are intimidated by the immersive experience, and a couple have even requested written versions of the case instead. "They have worries about older workers," says Roberto, who created the case while teaching at Harvard Business School. "They are fearful of the multimedia aspects."

At Lincoln Financial, CIO Cornelio says, training methods have been "altered radically," with a strong push toward Web-based training and away from classroom training. "It's much more about iterative processes over the Internet these days," he says. Lincoln still offers more traditional training options geared toward older audiences, but is pushing them toward online methods as well. The danger for managers is that older workers will feel left out as training methods change. Says Roberto, "Fairness is really important. You have to be aware of the needs of older or less tech-savvy workers." At the same time, managers have to balance the perception that one group or another is getting special treatment.

But there are opportunities, too, for training to forge bonds across generations. Legendary former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, after learning that one of his senior executives was being mentored on e-commerce by a young employee, encouraged the practice of the young teaching the experienced across the company. Erickson says that suits the preferences of Gen Y workers, who are comfortable moving across hierarchies and bonding with older people.

At VF, Schneider encourages what he calls "informal, two-way mentoring" that leverages the knowledge and talents of different generations. "I'm amazed at the skills of young people coming in—they are prepared for multitasking and have presentation skills— but they lack understanding of how a business really runs. The boomers are amazed at what you can do from a multitasking standpoint, and they understand the business process. So the more we can put them together, the more each group can learn."

One of the first things people say about Generation Y is that young people are in a hurry, and many younger workers have other options in mind if things don't work out to their satisfaction on the job, such as opting out of the career chase to focus on quality of life and family issues at rates higher than their older colleagues. For Ben, 30, an engineer who works at a global manufacturing company, old concepts of career paths no longer apply. (Ben preferred not to have his last name published.) "For people my age and younger, there is no negative feedback for switching jobs to get ahead, so there's not really company loyalty anymore. I know a lot of people who hop back and forth between the same companies—that's just how it is."

Page 4: Fast Risers?

Fast Risers

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Waiting for a promotion or choice assignment feels like purgatory to many millennials. "They are looking for a career path with shorter steps," Cornelio says. "That becomes a big management issue: You have to be more open to the idea that people will not stay in the job for five years just because that's what people used to do, but you also have to manage expectations and not set them up to fail."

The trick is to understand the expectations of talented younger workers while getting them proper experience and not alienate older workers who came up the traditional way in the process. Lincoln has tailored its development program to accommodate the interests of the people it hires out of college, paying more attention than it once did to their preferences as they rotate through a variety of job functions to see different parts of the company and allow the company to evaluate them in various roles. So far, says Cornelio, there has been little pushback from people who were assigned to jobs in a more traditional, top-down way, but that may change over time. "It's a developing phenomenon, the realization is just coming to people that there is a difference."

Mike Orren, 35, felt tension between his fellow Gen Xers and younger workers at the online publishing company he founded, Pegasus News. "The Xers were not as demanding or expectant of raises or options, and the millennials were like, 'I've been here 15 minutes, can I put vice president on my card?' It's not that we were being so elitist or hierarchical about it, but it just seemed so different from what we were used to." Things got really weird when some 20-something workers wanted to bring their parents into the mix. One guy showed up for a performance review with his mom and dad in tow, and another wanted his father to sit in on his stock-option negotiations. Orren wasn't having it. "That just annoyed the crap out of me," he says. "It's not appropriate."

Schneider stresses that his emphasis goes beyond newer technologies like video and online training to the goals of the training itself. "We know we have to change the way we handle knowledge transfer and training," he says. "You used to train people for 10 or 20 years on the job; now it's more about recruiting and retaining them. You have to prepare for knowledge transfer. We know we have to use documentation in different media, not just the written word."

Many companies are moving away from traditional, seniority-based career paths and focusing on performance and potential, Erickson says. That benefits workers of all ages—at least the good ones—and creates an unprecedented mix of age groups working together. That means managers must recognize generational differences to head off potential conflicts and leverage the benefits. Younger workers, she says, like jobs that they don't already know how to do. "They love to be thrown into situations where they don't know how to do something, then network with others to learn how to do it."

The word "entrepreneurial" comes up a lot in conversations about Generation Y. "They have entrepreneurial aspirations, they want to get away from structure," Erickson says. "Businesses tend to push people into specialties, out on a limb, but I recommend that corporations create lateral opportunities that give people multiple options and keep them comfortable, keep them challenged and interested."

And keeping them interested is an art. A senior manager told her that one of his Gen X managers couldn't figure out what to do with a Gen Y worker who finished an 18-month assignment in four months. The answer: Give him another job to do. It sounds obvious, but a lot of companies are not taking the hint. Younger employees may believe they can get a week's worth of work done in 25 hours instead of 40, but find it is socially awkward—and unrewarding—to do so. The result, says Erickson: "A lot of Ys tell me they are bored out of their minds."

Page 5: New Tools for New Times

New Tools for New

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When Reef surfwear's Schneider, who is 49, speaks to co-workers, he makes eye contact and gives clear signals that he is in fact listening to what the other person is saying. But when he does that with some younger workers, he says, they keep looking at the screen of whatever device they are using at the moment. Multitasking and what's known as continuous partial attention are endemic to Generation Y. Younger workers at computers typically have multiple windows open—not just an SAP screen for the work at hand, for instance, but a side discussion with a colleague and an Internet window for research. "They don't work in serial fashion, but in parallel," he says.

That takes getting used to. So do the tools younger workers use to multitask. "Talking on the phone is their last resort," Schneider says. Phone calls take too long. Even e-mail takes too long—instant messaging has largely replaced it—and Facebook has become the way of communicating across a broader audience. The phone is a platform for text messaging and IM.

Young people use the technology to different ends, too, according to Erickson. They are amazed at the amount of time their seniors spend on what she calls social scheduling activities. "They very rarely schedule— they coordinate—and they are comfortable working asynchronously," she says. "They don't need a conference call, they just put the question out. They are more used to working physically alone, as opposed to more frequent social interactions."

Ben, the 30-year-old engineer, works remotely and connects with his team via IM. He can't imagine doing things differently, and it bugs him when his older colleagues are behind the curve. "A lot of the people I work with are tied into this old-school way of doing business," he says. "They say, let's get together to set up a call. It's like, another useless meeting. People today want it to be more like, 'Get out of my way and let me do my thing.' That's why so many people use the tools like texting and IM— because it's fast, the response time is quick. My team is all IM all the time."

The tools are changing. "I think that in a lot of cases, like the expectation that people will read and write blogs, the older generation has to catch up," says Ryan Shell, 28, who works in public relations and marketing in North Carolina. The same may be true of more esoteric technologies.

Page 6: The Access Conundrum

The Access Conundrum

At a small business Ben runs on the side, newer tools like Twitter, Facebook and blogs are a given in terms of marketing. "It's a lot better than going to another conference and hoping somebody stops by my table," he says.

And young workers often move seamlessly between platforms, starting a conversation on a social network, for example, and continuing it via text. One consequence of this always-on, mobility based mindset: Workers expect to have access to their own information at work, and to work information at home; and they expect to use the devices and services they like, which can cause tension with security- and standards-minded IT departments. "They are used to change, and they don't like waiting for tools; they want things instantly," says Schneider, who is thinking about starting a blog to communicate more effectively with his team. "We need to be more flexible as an institution to deal with that reality."

Cornelio, like many CIOs, has been cautious about allowing messaging and social networking services, and he has misgivings about the culture of partial attention in which they thrive. "We need to make sure these things aren't detracting from the understanding of complicated financial information," he says. But he sees the writing on the wall. "If we're going to allow people to train online or through interactive Web sessions, we will have to find ways to accommodate these new ways of working."

Surprisingly, says Erickson, it is the Gen Xers who feel most threatened by the new technologies the younger cohort uses so readily. Boomers get credit for making an effort, but the group in the middle is expected to take easily to things that are new to them. "The pressure isn't on the boomers to be technical whizzes, but it is there on the next generation," she says." Orren, 35, feels the pain of the squeeze play. "We're the straddlers," he says. The millennials are digital natives; they were born into this stuff and we're expected to get this as well as they do. Meanwhile, the boomers aren't expected to get it."

Page 7: Culture Shocks

Culture Shocks

Carnival, with nearly 40 ships that frequently travel to areas with spotty voice communications, was quick to grasp the benefits of IM via Blackberry handheld devices. It's an effective way to communicate across a highly distributed environment, but it breeds challenges of its own. "Our messages can get very cryptic," says CIO Sutten. "They might lack verbs and context. I haven't capitalized a word in years. It's another way of speech." And it's a way of speech that is commonly used among young people who grew up on IM and texting, which have their own patois and grammar.

It's an efficient way to communicate if you understand it, but, says Sutten, 49, "It still annoys some people from my generation." To overcome the communication gap, Sutten has hired portfolio managers to translate techspeak and millennial-speak into proper English, even if it takes extra time. "They take our stuff and put it into prose and business context," he says.

Video games are on the agenda for this year's holiday party at Carnival. "Our staff runs the gamut— we have some older folks, but we've acclimated to the younger style," says Sutten. "It's OK to be techie in our culture." Spreading the youthful, techie culture across the company is something IT departments might do to ease the generation gap. Says Cornelio, "There are cultural distinctions between parts of organizations, and many times you will see one group draw the rest of the company along with them. We have a lot of people in IT, and we can make a difference."

In many ways, younger workers are ahead of the curve. Schneider points to a general comfort among Generation Y with diversity that is critical in the global economy. And in VF's highly globalized industry, he says, "When a designer in New York needs the same information as a sourcing office in Asia, and they both need it in real time, the demands are similar to those of workers who expect to be able to work when they want, where they want."

For a millennial like Shell, that kind of schedule just makes sense. "Back in the day, everybody was 8:30 to 5:30," he says. "That's on the way out. Now you have a BlackBerry on your hip, and you are going to work on your personal time every day. You need to be at meetings on time, but otherwise you can be flexible."

Still, Schneider acknowledges that shift is not always easy for others. "For a baby boomer like myself, it's more of a burden to work at home, to get on that conference call at 8 p.m. We may have to sell that softly to older workers, while younger workers are more accepting of it."

But regardless of age, he says, that's the way we work now.