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Talking to the texting generation

Fostering cross-generational information sharing

by Ann Arnott

We've heard the forecasts and know the upcoming challenge: Roughly 80 million Baby Boomers are slated to retire soon, and there aren't 80 million in the next generation to replace them. Much has been written about this anticipated gap but there's more to it than just filling the positions.

Industrial distribution faces an added challenge: Much of the workforce is populated by older employees who have accumulated years of knowledge and built valuable relationships that will go with them when they retire. The transfer of knowledge from experienced to novice employees will take time, and it will take encouragement. We're all familiar with some Boomers who believe knowledge is power — they have the knowledge so they have the power. They hold their on-the-job knowledge close to the vest, and are reluctant to share what they consider their advantage over younger employees.

On the flip side: Younger generations may hesitate when it comes to soliciting input from their more experienced counterparts. When older employees offer input, Generation Xers and Millennials don't always listen.

Addressing the Challenge
How to address this dilemma? One place to start is to establish mentoring programs matching older employees with Generation Xers and Millennials. Mentoring encourages information sharing across generations, and works both ways, as all participants have something to share. Older Boomers share their insights and expertise gleaned from years on the job. Younger employees share their knowledge of technology and offer process improvements because they don't always subscribe to doing things the way they've always been done.

As someone who is on the cusp between the generations (not quite a Boomer, not quite a Gen Xer), I've had the benefit of being mentored by those whose wisdom has kept me from making fatal errors. I've also helped younger employees gain the knowledge they needed to move on to the next step in their career, whether with the same organization or with another company. The role of a manager or employer is no longer just to provide a benefits package and paid vacation. We have an obligation to help younger colleagues grow their skills and talents to the benefit of the company and for their own benefit. When you seek new hires, you look for someone who has enthusiasm and a desire to learn. Why wouldn't you encourage the same in those you've already hired? Transferring the knowledge that already exists in your company is one of the most effective ways to train younger employees and reinforce their value to your organization.

Making Information Transfer Happen in the Real World
The natural question arises: How can you make mentoring and information sharing happen in the real world, where employees are so consumed by their daily responsibilities that they can barely come up for air?

For any pivotal position at your company held by an older employee, start by setting a goal for that employee to train another on his or her specific job responsibilities so that others understand what it takes to do that job. Make it a goal on which their performance will be evaluated. Once you have worked with the Boomer to set that goal, check back on a regular basis to make sure progress is being made.

One important caveat: It's important to understand and accept that not everyone makes a good coach or mentor. If some of your Boomers fall into that category, your best bet is not to expect them to undertake the mentoring role. But even for those Boomers who don't make good mentors, it's still a great idea to incorporate them into projects involving younger generations so that older and younger employees have the opportunity to learn from one another.

Dealing Effectively with Resistance
It's critical to provide reassurance to Boomers during this process of integrating the generations. Continue to ensure your Boomers that they are valuable team members and the goal of information sharing is to build better teams, not to replace Boomers with their younger counterparts. I position this positively and apart from the emotional issues that accompany retirement — if you win the lottery and decide you don't want to continue to work for us once you're a multi-millionaire, we still would like to be able to function once you're relaxing on your private island!

Put Systems in Place Today to Ensure That Future Employees Are Prepared
As increasing numbers of Baby Boomers prepare to retire, it's vitally important for all generations to think about how to engage Millennials in knowledge sharing and transfer. Be sure to put knowledge transfer into effect now to ensure that you don't lose valuable knowledge when the next generation takes the helm.

Ann ArnottAnn Arnott is EVP and CEO of the Power Transmission Distributors Association (PTDA) and executive director of the Industrial Careers Pathway (ICP) and the PTDA Foundation. Arnott has worked with multi-generational teams for 20-plus years. For more insights on working effectively across generations, subscribe to the ICP Talent Tipsheet at

This article originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2012, Direct Business Media.


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