bridging the knowledge gap between generations

15 May bridging the knowledge gap between generations

The value of knowledge capital in today’s global economy is accelerating at an unprecedented rate.  As companies begin to emerge from the recession, it is imperative to preserve a firm’s sustainability through the transfer of knowledge and skills from senior workers to emerging talent.  Coined as “knowledge management” in the early 1990s, formalized efforts to transfer knowledge across an organization are most effective when aligned with the corporate strategy and specific objectives, including business performance, continuous improvement, competitive advantage and innovation.  Large corporations allocate entire departments and copious resources to such programs in order to enhance growth and sustainability.  However, a recent study by The Conference Board reveals that most corporations are woefully ill-prepared for the generational shift taking place in the workforce.  A 2007 WorldatWork survey suggested that employers were already feeling the effects of Baby Boomers who were approaching retirement.  Earlier this year, Pew Research reported that beginning with January 1, 2011, some 10,000 Boomers will turn 65 every day for the next 19 years, totaling 26% of the entire U.S. population.  The potential impact to any business is staggering.  So, what are companies doing to maximize a multi-generational workforce?  How can your organization bridge the knowledge gap?

First of all, let’s take a broader look at knowledge transfer.  A common misconception is that only older workers have valuable knowledge and skills to impart.  However, in reality, the transfer of knowledge is a two-way street.  Each generation offers a unique set of skills to other generations.  Kim Rowe, a writer for the American Society for Training & Development, believes that younger workers offer knowledge that must also be shared among the generations, as in the case of information technology.  “Information technology has gone through such a revolution in the last 20 years,” Rowe states.  Pointing to social media’s revolutionary impact on business, she adds, “The Gen Ys are bringing that in.”  Rowe suggests that effective knowledge transfer is inclusive of all generations represented in the workforce and imparts training on the strengths of each generation.  “The two most important components for successful knowledge transfer within a company are respect and understanding,” explains Susan Zeidman of the American Management Association.  “Respect other generations and try to understand them.”

Companies that are successful at capturing and transferring critical knowledge and experience develop a formalized plan for doing so.  In its research, The Conference Board concluded that knowledge does not simply pass down from older workers to newer employees.  “The mobility and lack of loyalty of the modern workforce, and the fact that in many workplaces, as many as four generations work side-by-side means knowledge is not always filtered well throughout the organization,” states Diane Piktialis, a research group leader at The Conference Board.  Instead, Piktialis recommends prioritizing what knowledge and experience must be transferred and documented.  Effective programs begin with identifying what business problems must be solved, use knowledge management strategies to deal with an organization’s critical issues and then measure progress.  In an August 2000 Harvard Management Update, George Washington University professor Nancy M. Dixon explains, “Two things need to be tracked:  an outcome measure and a process measure.”  If a knowledge management program is aligned to a particular business goal, the efforts can be tracked.

Another area in which companies bridging the generational knowledge gap excel is their ability to become cross-generationally friendly.  In their book Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace, co-authors Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak highlight five operating ideas called the ACORN Imperatives.  Leaders use these principles to build organizations that accommodate differences, demonstrate flexibility, emphasize respectful relations and focus on retaining talented and gifted employees.  A brief outline of the ACORN Imperatives follows:

Accommodate employee differences.  Such employerstreat their employees as their customers by accommodating personal scheduling needs, work-life balance issues, and non-traditional lifestyles. Each generation’s preferences and traditions are recognized, and language is used that reflects generations other than those in leadership roles.

Create workplace choices.  They allow the workplace to shape itself around the work being done, the customers being served, and the people who work there. Dress policies tend to be casual and the work environment is relaxed and informal with a lot of humor and playfulness.

Operate from a sophisticated management style.  The managers are polished and direct communicators.  They give those who report to them the big picture, specific goals and measures, and then they turn their people loose – giving feedback, reward and recognition as appropriate.

Respect competence and initiative.  They assume the best of their employees. They treat everyone, from the newest recruit to the most seasoned employee, as if they have great things to offer and are motivated to do their best. It is an attitude that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nourish retention.  On a daily basis, they are focused on retention and on making their workplaces magnets for excellence. They offer lots of training, from one-on-one coaching opportunities to interactive computer-based training to an extensive and varied menu of classroom courses. They encourage regular lateral movement and broadened assignments.

While implementing a knowledge management program requires work and a modern perspective of how to manage multiple generations, the rewards are immense.  “In a knowledge economy, firm-specific knowledge is critical to the sustainability, performance and innovation of organizations,” argues Kent Greenes, director of the Learning & Knowledge Management Council at The Conference Board.  “While the process may seem long and complex,” he concludes, “it can sometimes be accomplished quickly in practice.” 

At Accuro, we work closely with our clients to understand and support their organizational objectives through our innovative staffing and recruitment solutions.  Stay close to our blog as we continue this discussion throughout the month of August. 

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