• November 1, 2008
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

Working with the Years

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Generation Y’s entrance into the workforce marks the first time in modern history that four generations are working side by side. Bridging a potential 50-year age gap between existing employees means companies have to acknowledge not just cultural differences, but a looming knowledge-transfer crisis. Despite the improvements in quality of health and the constrictions in financial security that have combined to push back the typical age of retirement, this multigenerational workforce will see its oldest employees exit sooner rather than later, and preserving the insight they possess is critical to customer-facing operations.

A new report, Bridging the Gaps, assesses 11 different industry-leading companies, including Procter & Gamble and American Express, to address the long-hypothesized multigenerational divide. “When we launched this working group, companies were saying, ‘We don’t understand younger generations. We don’t understand how they communicate,’” says Diane Piktialis, program leader at research firm The Conference Board and co-author of the report.

But while the scope of the problem may be new, the underlying nature of it isn’t. Knowledge transfer has been a concern for as long as jobs have been available. The techniques involved, however, have been radically altered by the adoption of technology. Younger generations in particular are used to life on a high-speed connection. “[They] just want the information they need, when they need it. They don’t want to listen to a long story,” Piktialis says. Instead of holding group classes on the company’s history and context, for instance, she suggests a series of podcasts focusing on the core message. “It’s not to say you’re dumbing things down,” she assures. “It’s about adaptation to new learning styles.”

Technology promotes efficiency and increased productivity, so it’s only logical that businesses encourage this transition. “We need to do this to engage younger people,” Piktialis notes. “They’re not going to come to us.” She warns, however, that unless innovative technology is “mission critical” to a specific knowledge transfer, you should avoid haphazard adoption of newfangled and unproven systems.

Older generations typically were committed to a company, sometimes for their entire professional careers, but younger workers are notorious for moving around, staying at a job for at most two to three years. “People aren’t necessarily feeling they owe the company, or [that] they need to leave a legacy,” Piktialis says. She suggests, however, that this lack of loyalty is not restricted to a particular generation—that it actually represents a cultural shift. She may be right—many workers are unlikely to be at the same jobs they were at a decade ago. Part of the problem is that overall employee turnover is on the rise again: In 1992, the unemployment rate peaked at 7.8 percent; after more than a decade of declines, it was headed back in that direction, rising past 6 percent at press time.

Even if knowledge transfer has evolved into more than just a generational concern, those on the receiving end of any knowledge transfer often have age-specific motivations. Dorianne Cotter-Lockard, an independent consultant, told the audience at the Office 2.0 conference this past September that, for Gen Y, “loyalty and stability [are] a thing of the past.” But John Vasellina—a fellow panelist and a Gen Yer working at pharmaceutical company Genentech—disagreed, saying that the only fading loyalty is blind loyalty. “I have a lot of loyalty,” he told the audience, “but I’m always thinking about how to develop myself.” Daniel Brusilovsky, the 15-year-old founder of start-up Teens for Tech and the youngest of the panelists, admitted that, even though he’s invested in his career, he doesn’t expect to stay at it forever. When asked about the future, he shrugged his shoulders. “Check back with me in five months,” he said. In other words, giving inherited knowledge to these self-interested employees requires framing that knowledge as a valuable asset for them.

In the face of that kind of shift, even technology can’t broach this seemingly “great divide” all by itself. Blogs, social networks, wikis, and widgets may help, but the effort fails unless everyone understands its benefits. And no company wants to revisit the data-entry nightmares that plagued CRM’s earliest days.

“The key is to find some common ways that cut across generations to create a common language that will ease and accelerate knowledge transfer,” says Jim Haudan, author of Art of Engagement. More often than not, the commonality is in what Haudan identifies as focusing on the big picture. “When people are immersed in a real discussion of the business—where it is today, where it’s going, why it’s going there, and what needs to be done—they forget their roles…[allowing] knowledge transfer to happen naturally.” 

Several of the stories in this month’s Insight refer to information and presentations from our recent destinationCRM 2008 conference. For more of our coverage from the show, please visit http://snurl.com/dCRM08.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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