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10/4/2006
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Is there a Generation Gap in Collaboration?

An ever-widening gap exists between the young people just entering the workforce who are accustomed to adopting new ways of communicating and collaborating, and the two top levels of workers, boomers and, well, let's just call them "elders."

However, some of my favorite researchers say (based on Spherion's latest study, now two years old) that the "emergent worker" has attitudes and behaviors not tied to demographics. Charlie Grantham of The Future of Work concurs, explaining that "...you have baby boomers out there that are using MySpace, IPods and webcams and living on the Internet with equal frequency as the younger folks. You can be a hip 60-year-old or you can be a fuddy-duddy 30-year-old. It’s not just an age factor, there’s something bigger going on here."

That may be true, but let's look at a practical example regarding work within an online collaboration environment.

Last year, I worked for an organization that set up many online communities according to fields of technical interest. One of the top reasons why many of the older participants chose not to share research was that they did not trust the other community users. On the other hand, the younger members posted research and enabled collaborative relationships much more readily.

What does this mean? Charlie's partner at The Future of Work program, Jim Ware, may have an idea. He thinks that "in the younger generation just entering the workforce, there is this sense of connection with people all over the country, if not all over the world through email and instant messaging, as well as this familiarity and comfort with multitasking. There is a difference and a comfort with relationships at a distance."

In Jim and Charlie's October newsletter, they talk about why there's still resistance to distributed work. They give six very clear reasons why organizations should be adopting this strategy, but the bigger question is why most won't embrace the change. They write in-depth about the eight reasons why organizations refuse to use a collaborative and distributed strategy to move forward.

These are their eight reasons:

   1. Inherent human inertia against externally imposed change
   2. Organizational inertia
   3. Management habits and Industrial-Age thinking
   4. Fear on the part of middle managers
   5. Fear on the part of front-line workers
   6. Uncertainty about communication and relationships in a distributed environment
   7. The CEO "Edifice Complex" that leads to visible corporate facilities
   8. Plain old complexity -- Distributed Work is truly a Big Change
  
To debate Jim and Charlie online a bit here (and I know they would welcome the discussion because they are open-minded fellows), most of these are generational differences.

Take point 1, "Inherent human inertia against externally imposed change." The younger worker (and I'm going to peg that person in their 20s for the sake of this discussion) has experienced a great deal of externally imposed change. They were the first generation to experience metal detectors in their schools. They were probably using instant messaging before we were (and I like to think of myself as an early adopter). They have been working with technology much longer than their teachers and have been using it to assert change for most of their lives.

Regarding point 2, "organizational inertia" is going to be tough for these new workers to address because most of the baby boomers lost a big chunk of their 401(k) savings when the tech bubble burst. Consequently, these folks will be working much longer and will be holding more of the jobs that the "middle agers" have been targeting. Meanwhile, there is an exodus of workers in their 30s and 40s are leaving organizations to freelance, consult or start their own companies because there are few growth opportunities available. Thus, we have a giant gap between the new workers and the boomers planning for retirement. No wonder there's organizational inertia. It would be the rare organization that set up a mentoring system to match the boomers with the new workers to avert the inertia, but that would be one of my first suggestions.

Jim and Charlie point out the generation gap without precisely naming it in their point 3, so I won't address it here. Instead, I will take on points 4 and 5 together since they deal specifically with fear. Ever hear of the X Games? The younger generation has little fear about most things. Of course, I didn't either in my 20s, but my point is that they grew up in the world of X-treme everything. They're not afraid to take risks in any part of their lives, including their careers. They will tell you how it is without mincing words. They didn't know what it was like to lose job security. They never had it, therefore, these younger people will be more willing to try collaborating in a distributed way because they don't have anything to lose unlike the middle managers and older front-line workers. I predict there will emerge a generation of innovators out of these young guns, but then again, I'm an optimist.

Point 6, "Uncertainty about communication and relationships in a distributed environment", is one of the things that doesn't exist to the younger worker. These folks grew up communicating with online community users from all over the world. They did not grow up without "call waiting," the cell phone or computers. They embraced the communal nature of blogging very quickly and developed online friends whom they share interests. As I mentioned earlier, this younger generation collaborates easily and realizes the value of sharing work. There's an interesting balance here since they are also fiercely independent as workers. Just don't get in the way when they are trying to get something done.

Skipping to point 8, "Plain old complexity -- Distributed Work is truly a Big Change", this is essentially the merging of all the points together, so I won't rehash what I've already written here. On the other hand, I can recommend my friend Peter DeJager, who is always willing to come in and work with groups on change management. If his name sounds familiar, you are probably an "older" worker, since he rose quickly to fame during the pre-Y2K hysteria as the dominant voice of change.

Please let me know your inter-generational experiences with collaboration. I'd like to hear them.

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