How to bridge IT’s growing generation gap

How to bridge IT’s growing generation gap

Deft leadership and management skills and a lot of empathy are required to balance the priorities and expectations of millennials, baby boomers and the Gen X-ers stuck between them.

Credit: James Yang

Do millennials make up a substantial portion of your IT staff? If not, they will soon. Within a few years, millennials — roughly defined as people born after 1981 — will comprise the biggest demographic in the country, overtaking the baby boomers, who are today's most populous generation. By 2020, one-third of U.S. adults will be millennials, according to researchers at the University of Southern California. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that they will also account for more than 50 percent of the workforce by that time.

Statistics like those matter because today's enterprises are facing unprecedented pressures that will force them to take this age group seriously, adapt to its needs and ultimately re-create the workplace as something today's employees — especially those baby boomers — may find unrecognizable.

The challenge for IT leaders is to manage those changes and balance differing priorities and expectations from the three age groups working in IT — millennials, baby boomers and the Generation X cohort stuck between them. It will require deft management skills, a lot of empathy and the ability to drive needed changes to keep organizations competitive in a fast-moving world.

Becoming a digital organization

The push to accommodate millennials begins with the much-discussed need for companies to embrace "digital transformation" or become "digital organizations." IT experts may differ on exactly what that means, but there's widespread agreement about whom it applies to. "When it comes to the new skills required to accelerate digital transformation, a lot of existing staff who are baby boomers and Gen X-ers have legacy skills and need to be reskilled," says Lily Mok, an analyst at Gartner. "You need to bring in young blood, and that can create culture shock."

Thus, companies that want to commit to becoming digital organizations are sometimes promoting younger people to higher positions than has been the norm in the past. Case in point: ERP giant SAP, which named 31-year-old Thomas Saueressig as its CIO in April 2016. Saueressig is the youngest person to be CIO of a Forbes Global 2000 company, and one of the youngest CIOs of a company whose shares are included in Germany's DAX stock index.

Thomas Saueressig, 31 years old, became CIO at ERP giant SAP in April 2016 SAP

Thomas Saueressig, SAP

Asked how his youthful perspective might benefit his employer, Saueressig says, “First, I would like to emphasize that SAP is very competitive, with fast reactions. Nevertheless, it’s a great opportunity to enable SAP to become a digital enterprise.”

Providing a more modern customer experience is only part of what he means. "On the one hand, it's about enabling new business models and optimizing processes, and on the other hand, it's about increasing user productivity and satisfaction by providing a modern work environment," he says. "The expectations of end users have changed significantly, especially for the new generation of millennials. I definitely bring a new mindset with me versus traditional IT, which will also help us to attract young talent for the company."

What do millennials want?

The hunt for talent is the second major force pushing employers to cater to people under 35. Given demographic realities, most companies will have a tough time hiring employees with the skills they need if they can't appeal to this age group.

As Saueressig says, the desires, priorities and values of millennials often differ markedly from those of their older colleagues. Some of the differences are simply due to the fact that the people in the two groups are at different stages of their lives, but others result from the fact that the millennials came of age in a very different world. Either way, IT leaders point to a few things millennials often seek but that matter a lot less to older tech professionals.

1. They want to be part of the big picture. Where older employees might be happy in individual roles, millennials want to understand the larger context of their jobs. "This young generation is high-context," says Monika Fahlbusch, chief employee experience officer at BMC Software, a business service management software company headquartered in Houston with annual revenue of more than $2 billion. "They'll want to know, 'I'm here to what end? Why does this make me important as an employee of this company?'"

"The prospect of working in an IT environment is not that attractive to someone coming out of school," adds Kim Smith, chief digital officer at Capgemini. "In their minds, traditional IT is the help desk." Smart companies, she notes, are responding by expanding on traditional IT roles, blending in other functions such as product development, or rotating IT employees through other areas of the company.

Jenn Prevoznik, head of SAP's Early Talent Acquisition program [2016] SAP

Jenn Prevoznik, SAP

"People want to join a program. They want rotations," says Jenn Prevoznik, who heads SAP's Early Talent Acquisition program. "Hiring them into a role doesn't do it anymore. You have to hire them into a role, plus give them an experience."

2. They want to work in a collaborative environment with frequent interaction. "My older employees are singletons," says Antonis Papatsaras, CTO at SpringCM, a 10-year-old contract management company headquartered in Chicago. "They want to be assigned a task, go work on it for a couple of weeks, and come back with a solution. Millennials want constant feedback."

They also want that feedback to be brief. "You can write a tweet in 140 characters and express yourself 100 times a day, and a lot of these guys do that," he says. "When it comes to managing their work, you have to meet them in that way — the social way."

Antonis Papatsaras, chief technology officer SpringCM [2016] SpringCM

Antonis Papatsaras, SpringCM

That means being both responsive and succinct. "We had to change our procedures to use tools like Slack and Google Hangouts and instant messaging to communicate with them," says Papatsaras. "They don't like writing long emails; they write one-sentence texts."

It also means compressing traditional timetables for evaluating employees' work. "They want to be given feedback often, and that's every couple of days, not monthly, and not once a year like we used to do with annual reviews," he says. "They want to know whether they are on the right track."

3. They don't want to be bound by too many rules. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to the technology millennials use. "Because they are using iPhones and Android and can download an app to do anything, they kind of have that expectation," says Peter Markos, CIO at Rotary International.

That should come as no surprise, according to Fahlbusch, who says, "They're digital natives; their experience with technology is quite different, and they want a lot of choice."

But younger people's resistance to rules goes way beyond the question of which technologies they can and can't use. They also want the freedom to work away from the office, and they want their ideas to be given serious consideration, whether or not they're in an executive role. And, not surprisingly, they really don't want to be blocked from advancement by rules and traditions involving seniority and tenure.

That last concern is a big one, and it's why, for example, SAP's decision to appoint a young CIO sends a powerful message, according to Saueressig. "I believe millennials don't place such importance on hierarchies or seniority levels; it's more about connecting the right people to do the right things," he says. "Appointing a young CIO shows the trust SAP places in its employees. It gives people chances."

On a collision course?

This mistrust of authority and rules can put millennials into direct conflict with older colleagues — who are often more senior. Smith points to differing attitudes toward authority, what hipsters of an earlier era used to call "The Man."

For people who came of age in the 1970s and early '80s, she says, the whole objective was making money. Smith says that group's outlook could be summed up like this: "I don't have respect for The Man, I don't want to stick it to The Man — I want to be The Man."

But to millennials, The Man and Corporate America seem less relevant than they may have to previous generations. "They saw the tech boom, technology, the internet and startups," Smith says. "They don't care about The Man, and Corporate America isn't really a destination for them. They may wind up there, but their loyalty only goes so far."

Put these different groups together, and you'll likely have conflicts. "People operate very differently," Smith says. "Depending what your gravitational pull is, you may lean in or pull back. A lot of companies today are asking: How do we create commonality?"

Sometimes senior leaders have to act as referees. "Our older folks tend to be very control conscious," says Markos. "Their view is, IT says it should be done this way, and the business people should listen. Younger people think, 'How do I get the tools that empower me to do what I need?' I have this culture clash in my group. Occasionally it turns into heated discussions in my office that I have to resolve."

Peter Markos, CIO, Rotary International [2016] Rotary International

Peter Markos, Rotary International

The older employees often work in infrastructure and generally have seniority, he says, so they are usually seen as decision-makers, especially on issues such as shadow IT and the use of cloud-based systems. "I have had a number of instances where [IT] said no and it wound up cycling back to me," he says.

In one such incident, a consultant working from a remote location needed VPN access to complete a task. One of the older infrastructure engineers refused to grant it — unless IT shipped one of its own laptops loaded with its own applications and security protections to the consultant. "It was a bit of bureaucracy," Markos says. "This was a project that came straight from the CEO. I said, 'It wasn't your job to say yes or no, it was your job to make it happen.' Baby boomers tend to want a black-or-white answer. Millennials tend not to be so stark in their decision-making."

Creating a unified IT

If conflicts seem inevitable, there are also a number of strategies that can help lessen their effects and get an IT organization of diverse ages working as a single team, experts say. Consider the following approaches:

• Don't make assumptions about people based solely on age. Recognizing that different age cohorts tend to have different priorities and desires can be useful. Prejudging someone's abilities or attitudes based on age alone isn't useful. For example, at Gartner, Mok says, "we have many analysts who've been in the business a long time, but they're savvy about new technologies and open to outside-the-box thinking."

In general, baby boomers are more open to new ways of doing things than you might think. For instance, in an effort to create a more collaborative, faster-moving company, BMC recently remodeled its offices to feature an open-plan format, removing offices and cubicles.

Monika Fahlbusch, chief employee experience officer at BMC Software [2016] BMC Software

Monika Fahlbusch, BMC Software

"I expected we would need a little change management with our older population," Fahlbusch recalls. "We needed none at all. We had anticipated people would be upset about losing their offices, but they weren't. The No. 1 piece of feedback we got was, 'I'm talking to more people than ever before.'"

• Create — and sell — a single vision for IT. People of all ages like to know that they're working within a team toward a common objective. Bringing IT employees together around one vision and celebrating your wins as a group will help build a cohesive team. That begins with getting the word out, both to IT employees and to the organization at large. "The one thing I usually find about IT is that we're not good at marketing," Fahlbusch says. "We're being asked to do more with less, and we're doing a lot to drive innovation. There's a lot to be celebrated."

This is especially important if you're trying to transform into a digital organization. "Respecting the differences across generations will help you reinforce your culture and management practices," Mok says. "It's not only telling people what to do, but also telling them why it's needed and how that translates into their own values. Not everyone will be willing to accept change, but with it coming from the organization top down, and bottom up as well, change can happen."

• Keep your own generational experiences and assumptions in mind. It may be your role to lead an entire IT organization with employees of all ages. But that doesn't mean you yourself are immune to the influences and values of your own age cohort. For example, Fahlbusch, who's 50, says she, like other people in her age group, tends to be task-oriented and places less importance on communication than millennials do, but she's trying to change.

Likewise, Markos suspects that his attitudes may be changing as the years go by. "I'll be 45 this year," he says. "I have never thought about my age, but I have noticed personally there are times when I feel I'm more on the side of control than I used to be."

After all, he says, the baby boomers were iconoclasts back in the '60s. "Maybe today's twentysomethings are challenging in the way that baby boomers were when they were 20," he says. "Maybe everyone is a millennial at some point in life."

An impending knowledge gap?

The youngest baby boomers are into their 50s, and the oldest are in their 70s. That means retirement is likely to be top of mind for many of them over the next few years. If some of your key employees are in this age group and they have institutional knowledge or legacy skills that your company needs, it's time to start preparing for their departures.

Gartner's Mok recommends workforce planning that considers demographics and identifies "vulnerable" areas where key people will be retiring. "You can build a pipeline of future talent ahead of time to fill in those roles," she says. If you wait until the last minute, you may have to hire contractors to fill the gaps."

Lily Mok, research vice president, Gartner [2016] Gartner

Lily Mok, Gartner

Another priority should be capturing as much institutional knowledge as you can before employees leave. "There are different approaches using knowledge management systems or recording videos," she says. "And using experienced employees as coaches and mentors to the younger generation. That's an important aspect of maintaining your organization and ensuring your continued capability to deliver high-quality services."

It's also smart to put more long-term employees squarely in the spotlight, for both new employees and customers, says Capgemini's Smith. "Sometimes it's a more positive investment to take people who've been with your company a long time and make them part of the onboarding process, or program management," she says. "You find people who've been in IT for decades and they're part of innovation centers and customer experience centers. And frankly, customers take them very seriously. This is a marathon, not a sprint."

Mok recommends a formal mentoring program. "The rapport has to be established between mentor and mentee, but you can facilitate, provide resources, and allow them to allocate time to mentoring because it is a time and resource commitment," she says, adding that it's well worth the investment because 70 percent of learning takes place on the job.

Contract management company SpringCM takes things one step further by pairing young employees and senior employees so they can write code together on one computer, using two keyboards and two mice. "Usually you have a driver and a passenger, the driver writing the code and the passenger adding to the code and lending ideas, and they switch back and forth throughout the day," says Papatsaras. One big benefit? "A new millennial coming in can write code on day one," he says.

While millennials can benefit by learning from their older colleagues, keep in mind that the reverse is also true. "We said previously that a mentoring or coaching relationship goes in one direction with the younger generation learning from seasoned staff," Mok says. "But in today's world, it really should be bidirectional. Younger employees know some of the new technology and can quickly adapt to it — they can be great coaches for senior staff. There's knowledge transfer from old to new and new to old."

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