IT's Generation Gap
Older IT pros and their younger colleagues are learning to cope with different experience, education, and work styles.
Steve Hieger manages two Leslies, and they couldn't be more different.
Leslie Lang is a 26-year-old IT-and accounting-support coordinator at Northern California Presbyterian Home and Services, a nonprofit company that provides affordable living for seniors. Leslie Wickliffe is a finance project manager in his early 60s. Wickliffe has logged more than 30 years in mainframe and systems support. Lang is reading Networking For Dummies. The two Leslies come from vastly different generations, with different social and cultural influences, technology training, and perceptions of their jobs, and they require different management styles. But there's another similarity besides their name: They're both valuable to 39-year-old network manager Hieger, and to Northern California Presbyterian.
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Two baby boomers join Lang, Hieger, and Wickliffe to make up what could be a snapshot of the American workforce--three generations collaborating on projects, planning business strategies, and implementing cutting-edge technology. The different ages and experience make everyone perform better, Hieger says. When Lang joined the group last year, she brought "a new perspective to what we do, because she doesn't have as much IT knowledge," he says. "We get into a routine thinking like IT professionals and not from the user perspective. She asks important questions from that angle, and having her has added another dimension."
As Americans live longer, work longer, and rely on technology more than ever, IT departments span the generations. Or at least they should, managers say, because of the unique skills each generation can bring to the workplace. "It makes the team stronger," says Bill Meilahn, senior VP and CIO at medical-services supplier Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings. Meilahn strives for a transgenerational IT organization at the $2.2 billion-a-year company. His department staff ranges from recent college grads to 60-year-olds--Meilahn's age.
The various age groups understand all the software, infrastructure, and systems found in IT departments, Meilahn says. "The younger kids know about Web-based development tools and technologies, and the older people have great experience with mainframe and midrange systems."
But successfully tapping those skills is another matter. Different work and communication styles, negative stereotypes, economic uncertainty, and the very nature of technology can cause tension among co-workers, managers, and executives. For the first time, a younger generation is entering the workforce better trained in certain areas than some older co-workers. That twist has turned the workplace on its head, as twentysomethings are more likely to have critical Java and other Web-infrastructure knowledge, and they often play important management roles.
Kindred Healthcare Inc., a $3 billion-a-year long-term acute-care hospital and nursing-home operator, is hiring a little of both--older, more experienced IT workers and recent college graduates, says Rick Chapman, senior VP, CIO, and chief administrative officer. Experienced IT talent is more plentiful than it was at the height of the economic boom, he says, but the availability of older workers doesn't mean the company isn't hiring recent grads. Younger hires often work on remote systems at Kindred's health-care centers. "That's a great opportunity to learn the business," Chapman says. They're paired with older, more-experienced IT professionals who serve as mentors for about a year. This approach gives each IT project a mix of age and experience. Older IT people know more about the business and have more hands-on experience, Chapman says, and younger staff often have good ideas.
Procter & Gamble Co. has a 2-year-old reverse-mentoring program aimed at educating nontechnical senior executives and managers about the IT tools available to help their business groups. The mentors are IT professionals from within those business units. Each pairing is based on the type of IT knowledge that a P&G executive needs. Sometimes junior IT people have those skills, so they serve as the mentors.
IT has taken on significant importance in the last couple of years for P&G's product-development groups. The company is moving away from making physical product prototypes to creating virtual ones with CAD software and virtual-reality tools, says Sharon Mitchell, VP of research and development for the company's feminine-products group.
Patrick Nelson, the 40-year-old manager of IT for P&G's baby, feminine, and family-care products R&D, has been a mentor for about two years to Mitchell, who's 50 and has spent 28 years working in R&D positions at the company. The relationship started with Nelson spending time with Mitchell "to assess what Sharon needed to learn, not just to show her everything I know," he says. By talking to Mitchell, Nelson also learned about the plans and strategy for the feminine-products group, so he was able to offer suggestions for technologies that can help her do her job better. At one point, Nelson arranged a smorgasbord of tools and technologies that might benefit Mitchell's department.