KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Talkin’ ’bout my generation…

with 2 comments

I frequently hear about research or pundit opinions on how the younger generation (the “net generation“, “digital natives“, “millennials” etc.) think differently from people in my own generation (“Generation X”) and that this change in thinking will radically change the workplace, especially how people communicate and collaborate.

I’m happy to hear about the imminent transformation of the workplace to be more wired and more social, less hierarchical, more innovative and more knowledge/expertise based. This is of course highly desirable in my line of work  in order to get people to adopt new technology tools such as social media, and in particular to change their behaviours, and to make the organizational culture more collaborative an supportive towards knowledge sharing. But I also have some qualms about how the generational argument is being used in many workplaces by senior leaders and human resources managers.

While it’s  true to say that each successive generation is more familiar and comfortable with new technologies and new ways of working – on an individual basis this isn’t  entirely determined by age. I’m sure you can all think of “older” people who are very collaborative and comfortable with new technologies and new ways of working – and also younger people who are not. This is in part because learning to use new tools, or working differently is about both familiarity and attitude. It’s true that on average that people can learn faster and are more open-mined when they are younger  – it’s also true that a large part of this is also personal disposition and that some people are naturally more conservative than others about change whatever their age.

Grouping people by generation leads to some lazy arguments in the workplace on how to manage change, some of which although common are potentially harmful. These include:

  • If you want to do innovative work you should get a young person to do it. A real quote I heard “We should get one of those web people under-40 with ripped jeans to do this”. While “on average” younger people might be more innovative, assuming that they are just because they are young, or that people who are older are not capable of innovating is potentially harmful. Turning ideas into successful innovation also requires a combination of talent, luck and skill and at least the last of these is something that develops with experience.
  • Change will come when the current younger generation become managers: If you want to change the workplace, it’s just too hard to change the attitudes of the current crop of managers, but over time as the younger generation reaches management positions then change will be possible, even inevitable. This is a doubly harmful conclusion in that it provides an excuse for not making change now (since it’s clearly just too difficult with the current dinosaurs!), but also because who is to say that by the time the younger generation gets older they won’t lose some of their interest and willingness to change the status quo. As Roger Daltry might have put it “I hope I die before I get old, or else I might start making American Express commercials!”. After all at some point people learn to adapt to the current system on its terms rather than trying to change the system to suit them – at least if they want to be successful in their current environment.

So, instead of making sweeping generalizations about people based on their generation, maybe its better to look at people as individuals, each with different aptitudes and propensity to handle  and lead change, and to nurture and reward those which have the ability to make a difference whatever their age.

If we want change now (“and if not now .. when” – as a an old sage once said), what we need to do is find ways to foster innovation and collaborative behaviours in all employees,  so we don’t have to wait for a new generation of leaders to start working differently.

This also means recognizing and nurturing current innovators in our midst, not as outliers pr special cases, but rather as exemplifying ways of working that are open and available for everyone to use and that are recognized and rewarded by  organizational leaders. If many of these innovators are younger and in more junior positions then that’s great – and we have to take care to nurture and rather crush their entrepreneurial spirit so it is honed rather than blunted by our existing bureaucracies.

Incidentally the video above was created fairly close to my birth – yes it’s that long ago😉

Written by Ian Thorpe

November 26, 2010 at 2:43 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I agree with you that it’s not all so cut-and-dry, but when you look at it more broadly, and across larger generational divides, it becomes clearer. I learned early on in my twenties that I had a hard time working for most people over 50 – because very few had the computer skills that I do, or were willing to think of new and innovating ways of marketing. Then I moved to Berkman where, while the staff is mostly under-50, the founder is 71. Proved me wrong, but he’s still an outlier!

    Jillian C. York

    December 2, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    • @Jillian – wile I agree that there are differences between the generations “on average” what I have a problem with is people/organizations using age as a lazy proxy to stereotype people without considering their skills and attitudes as an individual.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 6, 2010 at 5:56 am


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