A Fresh Mix

Age diversity breeds innovation, requires communication skills

by Peter Merrill

New ideas are created at the intersection of diverse bodies of knowledge. Whether diversity means having a multicultural, multigenerational or multidiscipline workforce, it is vital for innovation.

Organizations are transitioning from employing three generations to four. And this will present communication challenges in a similar way to moving from three to four-layer organizational structures.1

Over the last decade, much has been written about the differences between baby boomers, generation X and generation Y.2 And individuals born in the early 2000s, known as generation Z, also will enter the workforce soon.

Most people have a basic understanding of the various generations’ attributes, but they don’t always understand why those attributes exist. And I stress that the following descriptions are generalizations.

A job for life

In the United States, baby boomers joined the workforce in the late 1950s and 1960s when the U.S. economy experienced tremendous growth. Overall, landing a "job for life" was the mindset of baby boomers. Their loyalty was rewarded, and as organizations grew, promotions were offered and accepted.

Generation X, those born roughly between the 1960s and mid-1970s, entered the workforce in far less certain times. Two incomes were necessary just to buy a house. Instead of living to work, generation X worked to live. Members of generation X focused on the family, not work. And they entered the workforce as organizations started to experience huge influxes of new technology.

Members of generation Y are the children of baby boomers. The baby boomers were determined that their children would not be subjected to the strict parenting they had endured. Generation Y was praised for even the smallest achievements while their parents had been criticized and penalized for the smallest errors.3 In such comfortable environments, there was little reason for them to leave home.

Generation Z grew up with technology from birth, and these individuals received their first cell phone around the same time as their first pair of shoes. Their world is virtual, and with text messaging and social media, they have little need to spell correctly and certainly no need to write.

Please understand that I’ve been deliberately dramatic in these descriptions to highlight the cultural differences in the generations.

Diversity is innovation’s fuel

Cultural diversity and collective knowledge are the frameworks and fuel for creativity and innovation. A multigenerational workforce provides this.

Research has shown the biggest challenge for a multigenerational workforce is communication.4 Baby boomers want to call you on the phone, generation X sends emails and generation Y prefers text messages. This is a reflection of what communication tools these generations first experienced.

In a recent ASQ webinar on innovation and communication, I shared some background information on today’s communication tools to provide the audience some historical context:

  • Email started in 1965, predating the internet. It started as network email on mainframe systems, and it was eventually used in creating the internet.5
  • The @ sign was created in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, and he and Shiva Ayyadurai are generally credited with the creating email.6
  • Free email was not available until 1996 in the form of Hotmail, which was bought by Microsoft in 1997 when it had 8 million users. By 2003, Hotmail had 145 million users. You can see why generation X took to email so easily as it joined the workforce between 1990 and 2005.7
  • Texting was developed by Friedhelm Hillebrand in 1985. He analyzed the text on postcards and found the average number of characters was 150. At that time, he also had a constraint on wireless bandwidth for sending text messages. He settled on 160 characters, and Twitter allows 140 characters, leaving 20 characters for the username.8

Bandwidth efficiency

These technologies raise the issue of the bandwidth people use to transfer knowledge. Texting has the lowest bandwidth, followed by email. But face-to-face communication gives you the greatest bandwidth.

It is not possible to separate your senses. Your brain will combine all of them. Current technology, however, deals primarily in sound and partially with vision (on the screen). Table 1 illustrates that for an effective transfer of knowledge, there is no substitute for face-to-face discussion.

Table 1

I’ve been asked, "What do you foresee as the next great innovation in communication?" In the next decade, I think people will look back on Webex and GoToMeeting and laugh at how clunky they were. Virtual reality exists today, and in the future, people will be present in the same virtual conference room and have face-to-face communication but remain in their own personal offices.

Choosing a medium

Given each generation’s media preferences, how can an organization get three or four generations to collaborate and truly benefit from diversity? It starts by understanding each other’s preferences.

For example, I prefer email unless I have to deal with a complex situation. I also like to arrange a mutually convenient time for a phone call if I need to discuss the situation.

Phone calls can be intrusive. While the time may be convenient for the caller, it’s unlikely to suit the recipient. If I text message with my daughters, I find 140 characters to be a good limit for messages. The quirky language of texting, however, is agreeable with some people and not others.

Learning to collaborate

Effective collaboration starts with understanding the behavior of others. Getting the best ideas out of a diverse group—the primary goal of innovators—means understanding what others bring to the table, even if that table is a virtual one. It also means treating others with respect and not thinking your idea is the only idea.

People generally agree that members of generation Y bring a deep understanding of technology, especially mobile applications. They also can bring energy, enthusiasm and fresh perspectives that go against the status quo. They’re adept at collaborating and freely share ideas. But they may be uncomfortable in virtual meetings when they only hear the voices of experienced, high-level employees. A powerful voice can be intimidating whereas face-to-face discussion can soften the interface.

Generation Y is accustomed to receiving praise at home and must receive it at work—even if it’s just a recognition of participation. Members of this generation want life to be fun and open, which is the perfect environment for innovation.

Most importantly, they want work to be meaningful. It’s not satisfying for them only to know what is being done: They also must know why it’s being done. Nevertheless, generation Y must learn that not all work is fun-filled excitement.

I remember the drudgery in some of my past jobs. They taught me that, if a job is not exciting, I still had to move on and get the work done. The good news about this shift in attitudes is that organizations might finally be saying farewell to Taylorism.9

Mentorship boom

Baby boomers are at the other end of the generation spectrum. They bring deep experience, and after a new idea is proposed, they are often tempted to say, "We tried that, and it didn’t work." They must remember to explain why it didn’t work and contribute to a team’s common learning. Winston Churchill said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."10

Baby boomers must coach and not critique their younger co-workers, and they can play key roles in mentoring. Great organizations are becoming better at structuring their mentoring programs. They work to align the teacher and learner to better transfer knowledge and the experienced worker’s mastery.

Bridging the gap

Some may ask, "Where does this leave generation X?" They received a lot of attention in the late 1990s, and now they are the aspiring leaders. An analysis of global data has shown that as baby boomers retire, there will not be enough members of generation X to fill their vacant roles.11

To offset this, Europe has invested heavily in competence acquisition and employee engagement. Labor turnover is one of the highest hidden costs in business. And less than 10% of organizations have planned to offset the departure of baby boomers and address the engagement of generation X.12

Innovators know the benefits of diversity in creating new ideas. But diversity only works if there is understanding and trust between diverse people. Take the time to understand one another, and build that essential trust.

References and notes

  1. Peter Merrill, "Under Construction," Quality Progress, August 2015, pp. 14-19.
  2. The baby boomer generation includes individuals born between 1946 and 1964. Generation X identifies those born between 1965 and the early 1980s. Generation Y, also called millennials, represents individuals born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/generationsdefined.
  3. Jeffery Zaslow, "The Most-Praised Generation Goes to Work," Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2007, http://tinyurl.com/generationypraise.
  4. "The Multi-Generational Workforce Challenge," report, Nextstepgrowth.com, http://tinyurl.com/nextstepresearch.
  5. "Email," Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/email.
  6. Janelle Nanos, "Return to Sender," Boston Magazine, June 2012, http://tinyurl.com/returntosenderboston.
  7. Alex Bracetti, "The 15 Most Important Tech Acquisitions of All Time," Complex, Jan. 8, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/importanttechacquisitions.
  8. Christine Erikson, "A Brief History of Text Messaging," Mashable.com, Sept. 21, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/history-of-texting.
  9. Namesake of industrial engineer Frederick Taylor, Taylorism refers to segmenting jobs, tasks or actions into small parts that can be analyzed and taught. For more information visit, http://tinyurl.com/whatistaylorism.
  10. "Famous Quotations About Learning From Hisory," Age-of-the-sage.org, http://tinyurl.com/churchillrepeatquote.
  11. Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, Danielle Hartmann and Kristin McNally, "The Multi-Generational Workforce," The Boston College Center for Work and Family, Executive Briefing. Series, 2007, http://tinyurl.com/bcmultigenerational.
  12. Ibid.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Systems, an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ and chair of the ASQ Innovation Division.

Once again Mr. Merrill hits another 'home run' with a spot-on article. The entire article can be distilled down to his final three word message: "understanding and trust". I would reverse the order as trust comes before understanding... if there's no trust upfront, no effort will be made to strive towards 'understanding'
--Alex Lau, 03-14-2016

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