“Generation Blend” Helps Companies Bridge Technology Age Gap

REDMOND, Wash., March 12, 2008 – Microsoft’s Executive Leadership book series, launched earlier this year, distills the latest strategic insights from leading independent thinkers on the role technology can play in driving lasting business success in a constantly-changing world. PressPass spoke with writer and consultant Rob Salkowitz, author of the first book in the series, and Microsoft’s Director for Information Work Vision and overall series editor Dan Rasmus about the confluence of three generations in the workplace and how organizations can use technology to drive business success from this potent demographic mix.

PressPass: Explain the book’s title: what do you mean by “Generation Blend”?

Salkowitz: Generation Blend refers to the demographically blended workforce that’s emerging in which the workplace comprises three distinct generational groups, each bringing their own distinct work style, values and attitude toward technology to bear. In the book we examine how organizations can harness the unique assets of each generation in a connected environment.

Occupying the senior ranks are older workers belonging to the massive post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, whose professional experience predates digital technology and networks. Alongside these “pre-digital elders,” is the far-smaller “Generation X,” born in the 1960s and 1970s, that grew up alongside technology and has a strong affinity for it, and finally – just entering the workforce – come the “Millennials,” born in the 1980s and 1990s, the real “digital natives,” thoroughly steeped in networking and the social values that go with it.

Rasmus: It’s a generational crossover that’s occurring as people live longer and are able to remain productive until later in their lives.

Salkowitz: That’s right. Boomers are not only staying longer in their roles, they’re also returning to the workforce in different capacities after retiring from their primary career: the phenomenon of the “boomerang boomers.” They’re imbued with a strong work ethic and derive a lot of personal meaning from their work. Plus, there’s the push of economic necessity. Boomers are spenders rather than savers; only one in six have the means to retire, plus pension systems are looking decidedly less certain than they once were.

So Generation Blend represents the convergence of these disparate demographic currents. The challenge and opportunity for companies is to synthesize their respective strengths and minimize inter-generational tensions. With the right application of technology, Generation Blend represents a dynamic mix that can be even greater than the sum of its parts.

PressPass: How do the demographic segments that you identify in Generation Blend relate differently to technology?

Salkowitz: Reflecting a generation that grew up before the PC revolution, there are more Boomers than other workers with little or no exposure to technology. Of course it’s important to recognize that there are many older workers who are highly proficient in technology, but as a group they tend to use technology less outside work and may be less likely to grasp the cultural implications of technology as it relates to their work roles.

Generation X, on the other hand, came of age amid the uncertainty and flux of the 80s and 90s and tends to be characterized by entrepreneurial flair and a view of technology as a tool for personal and professional empowerment. At the same time, it’s a generation with a strong streak of individualism that has sometimes deliberately used technology as a wedge-point between its own members and preceding generations – in the same way that Boomers took to the streets and staged demonstrations – as a vehicle for self-expression, using desktop publishing programs to produce zines or to package up their music recordings, for example.

The Millennials represent a new twist. They’re far more inclined to view technology as an inclusive tool for social networking and reaching out to communicate and collaborate. They also attach far less novelty value to technology because, with the way they’ve been socialized and educated, it’s transparent to them. Content is what drives them. The point is that they have instant messaging buddies in Singapore or Hong Kong; the medium that facilitates this is almost incidental. Plus of course they’re adept at multitasking, so they’re carrying on an instant message conversation at the same time that they’re on their phone or they’re texting somebody from a meeting.

PressPass: What are the challenges and opportunities that Generation Blend presents to businesses?

Salkowitz: Now that they’re at the peak of their careers, the Boomers are brimming with the seasoned business acumen, insight and wisdom that come with decades of professional experience. Generally speaking – shaped by their education and formative experiences – Boomers tend to take a more top-down view of management, and the organizations they now run reflect these values with a clear chain of command and emphasis on forging relationships in person. When it comes to technology, they tend to use innovations to support their old ways of managing, which can lead to a digital divide with the generations that have succeeded them into the workplace and flashpoints with newer technology-enabled work styles.

Boomer-led cultures can therefore feel a little staid and stodgy to Gen Xers and Millennials, accustomed to using technology to enable a looser, more improvisational work style.

Gen Xers, for example, tend to place a premium on striking a work-life balance – juggling domestic priorities like childcare with their work – and using mobile technology to work remotely if need be, setting less store by being present physically as a marker of commitment and dedication. They’re also accustomed to using technology to work smarter and more efficiently, keeping process overhead to a minimum, slightly different to the customary Boomer focus on work-rate and cultivating and maintaining relationships. So you see this lag in many organizations, with prevailing cultural practices that have yet to catch up with the work style of more recent entrants to the workforce.

Meanwhile Millennials, in particular, don’t make the traditional distinction between work and personal life. There’s a blurring of the boundaries. If something isn’t quite to their liking at work, studies show they’re prepared to develop their own workaround using consumer technology. So you see this grassroots phenomenon of insecure consumer-grade technology coming into the workplace under-the-radar, which then poses a security risk.

Moreover, for older generations, some of the technologies being embraced by new workers can be threatening in terms of potentially undermining their established authority and status. For instance, Millennials bring an interesting approach to knowledge acquisition that one of my colleagues jokingly labeled “just-in-time comprehension,” where they don’t necessarily carry knowledge around in their heads, but know how to look it up on the internet via blogs, wikis or social networking sites when they need it.

This democratized access to information can feel threatening to someone who’s built up their expert status over decades and now finds entry-level workers able to retrieve information on an equal footing.

At the same time, Boomers possess a deep wealth of knowledge that you just can’t get from looking up a wiki, putting out a request on a social networking site or by keying search terms into an internet search engine, so companies alienate these workers at their peril.

PressPass: How should business decision-makers approach technology purchases in order to get the most out of Generation Blend in their workforce?

Salkowitz: The first thing to recognize is that a collaborative infrastructure is not optional. Young workers expect this, and if an employer is lacking this capability, they’ll bring in insecure consumer-grade applications with all the attendant business risks, or vote with their feet and seek a job elsewhere where they feel they can have an impact and an outlet for their creativity and desire to contribute.

Millennials and Gen Xers, for that matter, no longer think of their careers in terms of a job for life, so companies need to offer a technology infrastructure that makes younger workers feel valued and empowered.

At the same time, they cannot afford to alienate older workers. Accordingly, collaborative platforms need to offer a consistent experience, but also accommodate peoples’ diverse work styles by allowing them to customize their own settings to suit their preferences. The key to making a smooth transition to the collaborative workplace is what I call “leveraging familiarity,” taking the body of skills that people already have around pervasively-used productivity applications and moving them seamlessly into a connected environment.

Rasmus: A great example of putting this approach into action is software-driven unified communications, which covers all the ways people like to work. So if someone likes talking to people by phone they can still do this, but they can also instant message or e-mail and, using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, receive voicemail in their inbox. Meanwhile these capabilities can be embedded right inside the everyday productivity applications within Microsoft Office that workers are already comfortable with.

Getting the technology mix right is critical, but businesses also need to put in place the necessary culture and organizational structure to actively incentivize and reward desired behavior. This entails, for example, managers making a point of taking the lead in embracing new collaborative technologies in order to model their usage for other workers. Collaborative systems often require a critical mass of users for their benefits to be really felt, so setting an example to spur adoption is key.

The other piece of the puzzle is ensuring that activities like knowledge-sharing, made possible by technology, are not marginalized. To prevent this, devoting a certain amount of time to these activities needs to be formally written into employees’ objectives, so they’re not penalized for taking time out from other valued activities.

PressPass: How does Microsoft’s concept of software to enable the people-ready business mesh with the emerging needs of Generation Blend?

Salkowitz: The primary message of “Generation Blend” is that, with technology in the multi-generational workplace, one size does not fit all. You need flexibility, you need to be able to adapt to different work styles and say “yes” to the requirements of different workers. That’s the very definition of a people-ready business.

Rasmus: The people-ready approach to designing software really involves recognizing that people are the heartbeat of organizations, they’re what make companies tick, and that for software to be truly effective it has to work the way people do rather than requiring them to adapt to abstract templates. This means designing software with the broadest possible reach across user profiles and usage scenarios that also allows organizations to deploy collaborative capabilities in a way that empowers people while complying with regulations and other business requirements and that doesn’t expose them to security risks.

This is an approach you can see in products like SharePoint, which gives employees a shared workspace for blogs and wikis, addressing the millennial work style; but that also offers consistency of experience within a managed, well-governed environment that makes it easier to train workers just once, so multiple procedures can be accomplished through the same front-end interface.

Office Communicator is another great example of easily-accessible technology with a quick learning curve that balances the Millennial preference for agile collaboration through instant messaging with the need to track and archive these communications in a business setting to meet regulatory requirements.

Meanwhile Windows Mobile is key enabler of work-life balance for Gen Xers now juggling family commitments with their professional roles. The more capabilities you can put into portable devices – not just access to information but the ability to transact business – the more viable and effective this work style becomes.