The Social Business Advantage: 4 generations in the workplace

Diversity in the workplace can no longer be defined by gender, race or religion – we now have age diversity, where four generations are required to work seamlessly side by side, collaboratively, in an increasingly connected environment.

The challenges, at the core, are the stereotypical assumptions applied by one generation upon another, reinforced by mechanistic approaches to tasks, while inhibiting online behaviours that are now widely accepted in our connected, mobile personal lives.

Transforming to become a socially optimised business will be designed to enable the connective tissue that underpins the foundation for enhanced collaboration and connections that will facilitate new patterns of work and productivity to emerge.

So how does an organisation leverage the potential offered from a workforce with such a broad range of knowledge, experiences and levels of digital savvy?

Firstly –  suspend all generational assumptions!
Never assume one generation is more astute than the other – and that includes the use of technology!

Secondly – understand and acknowledge the variation in communication styles – both written and verbal. Older workers were educated in formal business writing skills, based on documents for reports, younger workers use writing for communication in new forms that require shortened messages. Neither is right, nor wrong! They’re both appropriate in their contexts – quite simply, one group is more practised at a particular style than the other.

Thirdly – Recognise the shifting career aspirations for different groups of workers. Younger generations are educated to accept and expect a number of career changes and are keen to learn as much as possible – quickly! Older workers, many of whom are facing a late change in careers, will be satisfied to develop expertise and may not be actively canvasing for their next move.

With these fundamental assumptions appreciated, designing opportunities for a multi-generational workforce becomes a process of integrating a social strategy that aligns with business objectives, while ensuring that current needs of all generations can be supported.

Briefly, I’m going to highlight three strategies that address methods for transitioning towards a socially designed business model, augmented by currently available technologies.

Knowledge sharing through collaboration:
Increasing the productivity of knowledge workers has been at the core of knowledge management initiatives for the last decade. Many organisations invested in large software infrastructures designed to streamline, automate, capture and categorise information with the intention of making it readily available, consequently improving productivity. However, the uptake of these systems has been disappointing. Yet, if an analysis on the nature of work had focussed on people, it would have revealed that many knowledge workers spend more than half their time interacting with others.

Instead the focus of facilitating knowledge sharing and collaborative work patterns needs to be designed on how people interact, who they interact with, and why those interactions occur. Consequently, shifting from knowledge as the core element for design of processes to people and interactions.

The power of the personal profile:
The core of social networking is the personal profile, used inside the organisation there is strong evidence to support the business value. A study from IBM (2010), interviewing 700 CHROs, reports that 83% of new workers feel better connected with co-workers, while other studies have found organisations who create personal connections have higher levels of staff retention.

Additionally, the power of personal profile can be extended beyond simply an internal staff directory by designing the personal profile to become an individual workspace where daily activities, informal learning, knowledge sharing and personal information management become discretely embedded. Where this has been implemented users are reporting improved information flow, able to more easily locate expertise, while providing a transparent platform that can be linked directly to their performance management activities.

Multi-level mentoring:
The third initiative that is gaining global attention is the successful implementation of multi-level mentoring, sometimes referred to as reverse mentoring.

Based on the premise of generational strengths, this style of mentoring turns the concept of older, senior managers providing guidance and wisdom to younger, less experienced recruits upside down by contributing value to all stakeholders. A relationship of mutual respect delivers opportunities for the exchange knowledge and expertise that creates valuable learning and support through the use of social technologies.

Despite the fact that 90% of organisations using social technologies report efficiency gains across their business practices (McKinsey July2012), simply embedding new software applications into existing practices is miserably insufficient. By taking a more creative, socially designed approach, rather than one that directly replicates, renovates or reinforces traditional models, an empowered multi-generational workforce can be connected to transform and accelerate business results.

And consider this, by 2020 there will be 5 generations in the workplace!