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Portrait of businesspeople (Polka Dot Images/Getty Images/Polka Dot RF)
Portrait of businesspeople (Polka Dot Images/Getty Images/Polka Dot RF)

Workplaces face a generational communication challenge Add to ...

One of the most difficult issues for any employer when trying to choose the best networking tools and policies for employees is the demographic disparity of the evolving workplace.

Some businesses have four distinct generational groups within their work force and, as older people are now being encouraged or permitted by law to work longer before retirement, future managers may have to deal with as many as five distinct groups, and this does not take in to account differences of ethnicity, gender and religion.

“Different generations communicate in different ways and want different tools,” says Jeff Diana, chief people officer at SuccessFactors, a provider of management software. “The ‘millennial generation’ [those aged between 18 and 33]grew up on Game Boy, iPod Touch, World of Warcraft and Eve Online. If you predominantly use e-mail rather than social media tools, such as Twitter or Facebook, then chances are you’re over the age of 40.”

People over the age of 50 use e-mail 20-30 per cent more than other demographic groups, says Mr. Diana.

“By sharp contrast, there’s been a whopping 40 per cent drop in e-mail usage by millennials over the last year alone, according to research by comScore [the online market intelligence group]” he says. “E-mail will soon cease to exist as a viable communication and productivity tool in the modern workplace.”

Research by Pew Research Center, a U.S. study group, found that an average member of the millennial demographic could be sending and receiving as many as 3,000 text messages a month, while senior managers, many of whom belong to the post-Second World War baby boom generation, tend to exchange messages via e-mail.

“For the first time in modern management history, leaders and front-line employees are using dramatically different media channels,” says Mr. Diana. “Management is at real risk of failing to speak the language and use the communication channels of their work force. If communication weren’t difficult enough already, it’s now become exacerbated by new choices of media and the ability of employees to be empowered with real choice.”

As a result, it is crucial that employers understand the communications habits of their employees and the tools they favour. SuccessFactors has designed systems that incorporate these varying practices.

“Companies need to place close attention to the tools millennials are using in their personal lives and incorporate those same solutions into the corporate environment to engage them and ultimately to boost productivity,” says Mr. Diana.

Failure to understand these differing habits carries the risk that some employees may simply ignore their corporate systems, seeking instead to communicate more freely online.

“In the U.S., in less than two years, the millennials will comprise 47 per cent of the work force,” says Mr. Diana. “The millennials are like baby birds chirping for their next meal. They are constantly connected, whether it’s text, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter or dozens of other applications.

“These trends are real and only getting stronger. Executives should at a minimum know which critical tools they will need in the future, and craft a strategy for their use in achieving improved performance. For example, how will you harness social media as part of your recruitment strategy? What social learning tools will you use to select and develop your people?”

A problem for many companies is that senior managers have become isolated from these changing trends, sometimes believing that communication is an information technology issue or persisting with top-down approaches, releasing selected information to employees without understanding that people are garnering their knowledge from thousands of sources within their personal, often Internet-based networks.

“Community collaboration challenges the IT organization because social media technologies often allow communities to build their own applications and collaborative platform,” Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald of the Gartner IT consultancy write in a their new book, The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees.

Nowhere is this more apparent, they say, than among those working on internal projects: “In these situations, community members can tailor the social media environment in their own way faster and cheaper than IT.”

Mr. Bradley and Mr. McDonald urge companies to focus first on the purpose of their collaborations and to build platforms of communication that will fit the needs of a specific group rather than resort to what they call the “provide-and-pray” approach.

Mr. Diana at SuccessFactor agrees. “People often make the mistake of starting a discussion about collaboration by talking about specific tools,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘we need a wiki’ or ‘let’s start an internal blog.’ We think that’s backwards. You should start by understanding what you’re trying to achieve from a business perspective, then decide which corresponding tool is right for you.”

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