According to Randstad USA’s just-released “2008 World of Work” survey, U.S. businesses face a serious talent problem with the coming retirement of baby boomers. Of course, this isn’t news to most chief learning officers. What they might not realize, though, is the challenge lies not with a lack of manpower, but with insufficient knowledge transfer.
“It’s not necessarily a shortage of talent in terms of numbers of people, but rather a knowledge gap in the workforce,” said Eric Buntin, Randstad’s managing director of marketing and operations. “Bringing generations together can certainly address that gap and help transfer that knowledge across generations to the workforce of the future. I think that’s key for learning executives today.”
Randstad’s research points out that one of the main reasons there isn’t enough knowledge transfer taking place is members of the “big three” generations — baby boomers, Generation X and Millennials — don’t really talk to each other that much. The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why in the world wouldn’t they?
First of all, as Buntin pointed out, there just isn’t enough bandwidth in most people’s schedules to make time for interaction that goes beyond execution of day-to-day tasks.
“If you look at the past five or six years, you’ll see that productivity pressures in organizations are pretty high,” he explained. “You have less people doing more, due to pressures from global competition and profit. So the ability for interaction is lessened simply by the fact that people simply don’t have as much time to interact. That productivity pressure is exacerbating the organizational hierarchy issues that are already in place.”
However, he noted that in many cases, members of these generations just don’t necessarily like each other, or more accurately, the idea of each other.
“Because these generations have specific perspectives of each other, that also impacts how they interact with one another,” Buntin said. “If you have a stereotype of someone else, that’s going to shade your interactions — in terms of both frequency and content — with people of those generations. I think there’s some truth to those in terms of what shapes people’s perceptions as they move into the workplace.”
The “World at Work” study delineated the stereotypes in terms of how each generation was most likely to describe itself. Some specific traits included:
1. Baby boomers: Strong work ethic, competent, ethical.
2. Generation X: Confident, competent, willing to take responsibility.
3. Millennials: Sociable, thinks outside the box, open to new ideas.
So how should your organization get people in these groups talking to one another? It starts with identifying and embracing the strengths of each, Buntin said.
“Understand that those stereotypes exist. They shouldn’t necessarily see them as a negative, but instead acknowledge the strengths within each generation and integrate that awareness into development programs. Try to move beyond those stereotypes and figure out how to leverage those strengths.”
More precisely, learning leaders can create project teams that deliberately mix members of the different generations. They also can try to remove any organizational barriers that might hinder communication and collaboration between these groups.
“The benefit would be addressing what all generations said were their top three traits for a good employer: recognizing the worth of each individual, delivering on the promise to the customer and caring as much about employees as customers. I think learning programs that cross-pollinate generations will satisfy those three needs and build competitive advantage for organizations.”