Only the most unaware chief learning officer on the planet would
think that he has no problem with multiple generations of workers
in the workplace. Dozens of articles in business magazines, reports
on NPR, and even the plots of popular sitcoms have been telling us
it's the Freaks vs. the Geezers out in the plant or back office.
Perhaps, if the CLO can stay locked up long enough in the office,
the old farts will all retire and the youngsters can finally run
the joint the way they want.
There are a couple of problems with that plan. First, a lot of the
gray hairs have decided to hang around for a few more years,
spoiling the party, not to mention clogging the promotion pipeline.
Second, a lot of organizations have been lax about making sure that
the deep knowledge of the organization stuffed between the ears of
Bob, Phyllis, and Ted, has been saved and passed along to Brandon,
Amber, and Cody.
So what's a CLO to do? Keeping the organization humming while
planning for the future requires bringing these groups together;
creating an atmosphere of sharing, learning, and collaboration is
the key. You could have a Grateful Dead Day at the office and
encourage everyone to wear tie-dyed t-shirts.
Or you could figure out a way to recognize the differences in the
generations and build bridges between them. That's the suggestion
of Lisa Haneberg in her ASTD Press book Hip & Sage. In her work
as a consultant, she sees many organizations that have issues
directly related to age and culture differences in their
workforces. Some are dealing with the problems; some are ignoring
"It depends on the company," she explains. "I work with a city
government and two-thirds of its workforce is eligible for
retirement in the next five to seven years. They don't have natural
successors. Because it had a hiring freeze for a period of time,
the city has a gap in the workforce. They have people who are 50
and above and they have people who are under 35. It is paramount
for this particular organization to create healthy, strong dialog
and collaboration between these generations of people who, by their
instincts, practices, and comfort levels, communicate differently.
For them the issue is quite severe."
Levels of Friction
The differences in age and culture cause varying levels of
friction, based mostly on the nature of the organization itself.
"For a higher technology company, who by the very nature of its
people attracts early adopters - even the 50-year-old early adopter
- chances are you won't see a large amount of friction," she says.
"The more traditional organizations - such as manufacturers and
governments - are different. What you may find, particularly if
they have a large population that in 10 years is going to retire,
is it's paramount that you have an exchange of knowledge in a
respectful and developmental way. The only way that happens is if
you have mentoring going both ways."
She warns, however, that you can't round up the oldsters and say:
"You older sage workers, now it's time to dump your knowledge." And
you also can not assume that the younger generations are ready to
accept it, or even want it.
"The younger workers need to be eager to accept it. And to do that,
you need to have connections and relationships. A big part of what
I wrote about is building that relationship and that trust."
Getting the troops together and having everyone sing "Kum By Ya" is
not the solution, Haneberg warns. And organizations that don't
understand the connection between generational cooperation and the
bottom line are probably doomed. Many younger workers don't
understand the value of middle management, nor do they aspire to
those positions. "As we know, the middle management ranks are the
engines of organizations," says Haneberg. "They translate strategy
into action. In many organizations, you have a middle management
that may or may not have built relationships (with younger
"It is about a middle management alignment and optimization. That
should be a part of your learning strategy, because not only does
that help you with any business strategy, it's even more important
[because] you have this middle management that is getting older.
The younger workers are not as title oriented as people were in the
1970s and 80s. They aren't clamoring for these jobs that are going
to be vacated.
"That's why it's a whole new challenge about how to engage these
folks. I believe there needs to be a strategic initiative in these
organizations on creating that connection."
Red Bull vs. Coffee
There are the obvious differences between the generations. Beyond
tattoos, piercings, and choosing Red Bull over coffee, there are
difference in aspirations and needs beyond the company walls. Those
unseen and misunderstood differences can send any learning agenda
over the cliff.
The younger people "want to be a part of creating and re-creating
things," explains Haneberg. "Where many older workers tend to be
more compliant, or willing to work within a structure, the younger
generations want to be a part of creating the structure. They want
to think that the structure is flexible. They want their training
on their iPods. They want to telecommute, and they don't want to
work somewhere if the policies don't make sense.
"They seek and require for retention that you be as flexible as
your business will allow. For a lot of middle managers, who are
used to setting up structures and having employees work compliantly
within that structure, that can be a real challenge."
Haneberg also warns that organizations that believe a sagging
economy is the way to whip the younger workers into shape do so at
their own peril "That thinking leads to false retention
assumptions," she explains. "We need to have conversations where we
build bridges and collaborations and relationships. We don't need
to put it off just because we think people can't look for a job.
It's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard - yet I hear it
all the time."
Talent assessment efforts that don't take into consideration the
needs of younger workers, as well as educate them to the
opportunities that come with advancement, are going to face
problems. "You want to make sure that you understand what the goals
of the younger workers are," says Haneberg. "If you find you have
less and less interest from younger workers in middle management
positions, it's because you have not made the connection to the
contribution middle managers make."
If all of a sudden your bench is looking really weak due to a lack
of interest of younger workers, you have big problems, says
Haneberg. "These younger generations need to be told they are on
the track to promotion, or they will find someone who will tell
them," she adds. "Even if they are getting the great training and
opportunities, if you don't have the conversation that schmoozes
them a bit, you are going to lose them."