The Value of Multiple Generations in the Workplace

For years now we’ve been discussing how millennials are the new generation of employees with very different workforce behaviors, but rarely have we discussed other generations’ behaviors and how they coincide. Shocked that four generations in the workplace might become five, I interviewed Carla Patalano, a professor at New England College of Business, to discuss the value of having multiple generations in the workplace and what their leaders need to know about each.

We’ve established that there’s often four generations in the workplace right now. Employees and leaders know that. But what are we supposed to do with that information? More importantly, what’s a learning leader’s role?

Patalano: The generational lens is just one that organizations can use to view situations and filter prospective courses of action, but it is a powerful one that shouldn’t be ignored. Information around what each generation values, and how they work best, should provide context for how we approach employee development, learning, knowledge management, etc. Once you understand generational perspectives and differences, you can appreciate the important yet nuanced differences around what terms like “mobile” or “social” mean as they pertain to those generations.Patalano_Carla

For example, if an organization is about to embark on an initiative around service learning, rolling out an “off-the-shelf” program, or simply copying a competitor’s program design means missing an important opportunity to connect with employees, and to generate excitement and interest in the program. Instead, the learning leader must evaluate a variety of approaches and how those might (or might not) resonate with different stakeholder audiences. For service-learning, those audiences could include, internally, managers, employees, executives and independent contractors. Externally, they might include customers, board members and community relations leaders or organizations. That stakeholder role is certainly one important filter to consider in creating this program. Regardless of the role, those audiences will all be composed of individuals who identify with a specific generation. A learning leader’s role is to use that generational filter to determine how best to craft the program, to communicate with and connect those audiences to it, and to gain buy-in for the program. 

How should learning leaders, and HR in general, work with the rest of the organization to adequately prepare the workforce and organization?

Patalano: Assumptions can be dangerous things, given that no group (generation, culture, organization, etc.) is homogenous. The most important thing HR professionals and those in learning leadership roles should do is model the behavior that they want to see in their organization. Be flexible in your approach, involve individuals from all levels of the organization and from a variety of backgrounds, incorporating and accommodating as many different styles and preferences as possible. For example, if we are talking about fostering understanding about generational differences, formal training on what different generational perspectives are can be a helpful starting point. From there, the format could move to take advantage of the fact that learning is often more powerful when it is personal and interactive. Extending the formal training by creating affinity groups, personal learning networks, meet-ups, hangouts or help-ups are all approaches that allow people to connect, collaborate and learn from one another. Different degrees of informality represented by these social learning groups can accommodate the different preferences of individuals from different generations.

Give me a timeline. In your mind, what should HR do now, what about in a year, five years? What sort of plan should be in place?

Patalano: Every organization has its own culture and business needs, and this must be at the forefront of any plan HR would create. With that in mind, I don’t think there are necessarily specific things that must happen now, versus in a year or in five years from now. I view addressing this need for generational understanding and collaboration as an iterative process, with no defined time period for completion, but one that should start right away. Organizations can always return to any of the steps as needed to change or enhance tactics.

That said, I can offer one approach that can start the organization on the path to fully utilizing all of the unique attributes that the various generations bring to the table.

Step 1: Take an Inventory of Human Capital Assets

A good place to start for HR and learning leaders right now is with an inventory of the organization’s hidden current human capital assets. What do your employees bring to the table that you don’t know about? What interests, experiences or expertise outside of your area of operation, industry, field or niche do they have? Generations will define what a valuable skill is differently, and may not even be aware that something would be viewed in this manner, so learning professionals will need to use a brainstorming process to tease out the less-obvious, “not on a resume” nuggets. 

Step 2: Identify and Bridge Gaps

Next, how might you use what you discover? This means HR and learning leaders need to work with their business partners to identify how to bridge the gaps between these untapped, formerly hidden current assets and desirable business outcomes. By business partners, I don’t just mean managers in the organization. New hires or those employees that are in the earlier stages of their career can offer a much-needed reality check, and may bring that younger Gen Y perspective in that otherwise might not be represented.

Step 3: Track and Measure Progress

To ensure you are moving forward, it’s important to define how you will track and measure your progress. HR and learning professionals need to embrace quantitative analysis and be data driven. In this case, perhaps one metric would be to measure the new skill sets you discovered, and later to correlate them with productivity, customer satisfaction or innovative work practices. Whatever you select, communicate your results in an easily understood manner that appeals to all generations. Simple dashboards can provide a vehicle to signal progress, while forums around them can allow for interaction, transparency and feedback. 

Step 4: Use Data to Inform Decisions

Finally, use that data to inform decisions and take action. Perhaps you will discover that the organization has underutilized a skill set at which Generation Y is particularly strong. Just engaging in this activity alone will yield returns in terms of enhancing communication and inter-generational connections throughout the organization, both of which are important to fostering learning and innovation as a whole. By involving those in the organization that represent different generations, you can set the stage for some creative problem-solving. 

What’s the downside of not doing this? For leaders who say they don’t have the time, or it won’t be an issue for them, what do you have to say?

Patalano: Even if you don’t buy in to the idea of generational differences, it should be evident that there are some significant forces at play that cannot be ignored. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to anything today. Personal and private lives have blurred immensely, with mobile technology and our always-on, 24/7 culture. A purpose economy centered on engaging only in personally meaningful work for purpose-driven organizations is a taking over. Corporate siloing and protocols characterized by non-communication and incompatible goal-setting are fast becoming a thing of the past. People expect to be able to express their individuality in the workplace and have access to communicate freely both within and outside of the organization. 

I believe this is largely a result of the influence of the youngest generation in the workforce, Generation Y. Others will argue it’s a simple matter of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), increased access to information and technological innovation.

Regardless of what position you take, this translates to employees of all ages that are demanding transparency and a connection with their employer that goes well beyond a paycheck, benefits, training or opportunities for advancement. If you don’t find a way to connect with your current and prospective employees, and tailor your approaches to learning and development to their needs, you place your organization at a distinct disadvantage — wasting precious resources on learning and development initiatives that don’t produce results.

Ladan Nikravan is a Chief Learning Officer senior editor. Comment below or Follow Nikravan on Twitter at @LadanNikravan. You can also follow her on Google Plus.