Book Review: Generation Blend

I have already voiced my scepticism about Generation Y, so it may seem odd that I chose to buy Rob Salkowitz’s book Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap. However, there is a lot in this book that does not depend on an uncritical acceptance of the “generations” thesis. It provides a sound practical basis for any business that wants to, in Salkowitz’s words, “develop practices and deploy technology to attract, motivate, and empower workers of all ages.”

As one might expect, underpinning Generation Blend is the thesis that there are clear generational (not age-related) differences that affect how people approach and use technology. In this, Salkowitz builds on Neil Howe and William Strauss’s book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. However, generational differences are not the starting point for the book. Instead, Salkowitz begins by showing how technology itself has changed the working environment irrevocably. In doing so, he establishes the purpose of the book: to allow organisations to develop the most suitable strategy to help their people to cope with those changes (and the many more to come).

Organizations invest in succeeding waves of new technology — and thus subject their workers to waves of changes in their lives and workstyles — to increase their productivity and competitiveness. Historically, productivity has increased when new technology replaced labor-intensive processes, first with mechanical machinery, and now electronic information systems. (p. 24)

Dave Snowden has started an interesting analysis of these waves of change, and Andrew McAfee’s research shows that IT makes a difference for organisations. What Salkowitz does in Generation Blend is to provide real, practical, insights into the way in which organisations can make the most of the abilities of all generations when faced with new technology. When he does discuss the generations, it is important to remember that his perspective is entirely a US-centric one. That said, the rest of the book is generally applicable. This is Salkowitz’s strength — he recognises that there are real exceptions to the broad brush of generational study, and his guidance focuses on clear issues with which it is difficult to disagree. As one of the section headings puts it, “software complexity restricts the talent pool,” so the target is to accommodate different generational approaches in order to loosen that restriction. Chapter 3 of the book closes with a set of tables outlining different generational attributes. I found these very useful in that they focused the mind on the behaviours and attitudes affecting people’s approach to technology, rather than as a hard-and-fast description of the different generations.

Salkowitz’s approach can be illuminated by comparing three passages on blogging.

The open, unsupervised quality of blogs can be deeply unsettling to people who have internalized the notion that good information comes only from trusted institutions, credentialed individuals, or valid ideological perspectives. (p. 82)

On the other hand:

Blogs and wikis create an environment where unofficial and uncredentialed contributors stand at eye level with traditionally authoritative sources of knowledge. This is perfectly natural to GenXers, who believe that performance and competence should be the sole criteria for authority. (p. 147)

And, quoting Dave Pollard with approval:

“I’d always expected that the younger and more tech-savvy people in any organization would be able to show (not tell) the older and more tech-wary people how to use new tools easily and effectively. But in thirty years in business, I’ve almost never seen this happen. Generation Millennium will use IM, blogs, and personal web pages (internal or on public sites like LinkedIn, MySpace and FaceBook) whether they’re officially sanctioned or not, but they won’t be evangelists for these tools.” (p. 216)

 There is here, I think, a sense of Salkowitz’s desire to engage older workers as well as his concern that unwarranted assumptions about younger people’s affinity with technology could lead businesses towards the wrong courses of action.

At the heart of Generation Blend is a critique of existing technology, in which Salkowitz points out that current business software has a number of common characteristics:

  • It tends to be complex and overladen with features
  • It focuses on efficiency
  • It is driven by the need to perform tasks
  • It supports a work/life balance that is “essentially a one-way flow of work into life” (p. 147)

These characteristics have come about, Salkowitz argues, because the technology has largely been produced by and for programmers whose values and culture:

…independence, obsession with efficiency as a way to save personal time and effort, low priority on interpersonal communication skills, focus on outcomes rather than process (such as meetings or showing up on a regular schedule), seeing risk in a positive light, desire to dominate through competence — sound like the thumbnail descriptions of Generation X tossed out by management analysts. (p. 149)

Since this group is clearly comfortable with technology, and is also increasingly moving into leadership and management roles, Salkowitz provides them with guidance on making technology accessible to older workers and on making the most of the skills and insights of younger workers. He does this in general terms throughout the book, but most convincingly in the final three chapters. Two of these use narrative to show how (a) the fear can be taken out of technology for older people and (b) the younger generation can be involved directly in defining organisational strategy.

In the first of these chapters, Salkowitz describes a non-profit New York initiative, OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), which trains older people in newer technologies, so that they can comfortably move into roles where those skills are needed. OATS has found that understanding the learning style of these people allows them to pick up software skills much more quickly than is commonly assumed.

While younger people learn technology by handson experimentation and trial and error, [Thomas] Kamber [OATS founder] and his team find that older learners prefer information in step-by-step instructions and value written documentation. (p. 167)

At the other end of the generational scale, Salkowitz starts with a statement that almost reads like a manifesto:

Millennials may be objects of study, but they are also, increasingly, participants in the dialogue, and it is silly (and rude) for organizations to talk about them as if they are not already in the room. (p. 190)

He goes on to illustrate the point with an account of Microsoft’s Information Worker Board of the Future, which was a “structured weeklong exercise around the future of work,” which the company used to help it understand how its strategy should develop in the future. It was judged to be a success by bringing new perspectives to the company as well as showing Microsoft to be a thought leader in this area.

…the organizational commitment to engage with Millennials as partners in the formation of a strategic vision can be as valuable as the direct knowledge gained from the engagement. Strategic planning is a crucial discipline for organizations operating in an uncertain world. When it is a closed process, conducted by experts and senior people (who inevitably bring their generational biases with them), it runs a greater risk of missing emergent trends or misjudging the potential for discontinuities that could disrupt the entire global environment. Opening up the planning process to younger perspectives as a matter of course rather than novelty hedges against the risks of generational myopia and also sends a strong positive signal to members of the rising generation. (p. 209)

Generation Blend ends with a clear exposition of the key issues that organisations need to address in order to make the most of their workers of all ages and the technology they use.

Organizations looking to effectively manage across the age gap in an increasingly sophisticated connected information workplace should ask themselves five questions:

  1. Are you clearly explaining the benefits of technology?
  2. Are you providing a business context for your technology policies?
  3. Are you making technology accessible to different workstyles?
  4. Does your organizational culture support your technology strategy?
  5. Are you building bridges instead of walls? (p. 212)

The last two of these are particularly interesting. In discussing organisational culture, Salkowitz includes careful consideration of knowledge management activities, especially using Web 2.0 tools. He is confident that workers of all generations will adapt to this approach to KM at a personal level, but points to real challenges: “[t]he real difficulties… are rooted in the business model and in the way that individual people see their jobs.” (p. 229) For Salkowitz, the solution is for the organisation to make a real and visible investment in knowledge activities — he points to the use of PSLs in UK law firms as one example of this approach. Given the tension between social and market norms that I commented on yesterday, I wonder how far this approach can be pushed successfully.

Running through Generation Blend is a thread of involvement and engagement. Salkowitz consistently advocates management approaches that accommodate different ways of extracting value from technology at work. This thread emerges in the final section of the book as an exhortation to use the best of all generations to work together for the organisation — building bridges rather than walls.

Left to themselves, workers of different ages will apply their own preconceptions and experiences of technology at work, sometimes leading to conflict and misunderstanding when generational priorities diverge. But when management demonstrates a commitment to respecting both the expectations of younger workers and the concerns of more experienced workers around technology, organizations can effectively combine the tech-savvy of the young with the knowledge and wisdom of the old in ways that make the organization more competitive, more resilient to external change, more efficient, and more open. (p. 231)

I think he is right in this, but it will be a challenge for many organizations to do this effectively, especially when they are distracted by seismic changes outside. My gut feeling is that those businesses that work hard at the internal stuff will find that their workforce is better able to deal with those external forces.