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Crossing the Generational Gap

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By Kim Hogan and Matt Kantelis
December 9, 2013

There may be Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Y and Millennials, and even Generation Z, yet today’s business marketplace really consists of just two sets of professionals: the older and the younger.

While their ages may span early 20s to 65 years old and beyond, both groups share a universal commonality and a universal disconnect. They realize, accept, and are often eager to work cooperatively with each other, yet there seems to be an ever-present barrier between the two. Not only can this disparity hinder an organization's ability to meet its goals and establish a succession plan; it may cause them to suffer in the short term when their competitors manage to overcome similar obstacles and reach the next level.

How many times have you heard senior management say something like, “We used to do it this way” or “In my day, we did it like this”? Of course we need to tap the older generation for their wisdom and experience, but at the same time, the new breed of emerging professionals is hungry to assume more meaningful responsibilities, have clear advancement opportunities, and show that there may be a new better way to do things.

The great gap

What makes these two generations tick?

Let’s start with the older generation; we’ll call them “Technology Trailblazers.” This is a workforce that painfully recalls the day when they changed the tape on their adding machines, wore down erasers to black nubs, and looked forward at technology as the platform to automate their most tedious processes.

Memories of the latest release boxed accounting software proudly displayed on the shelf in their corner office are etched in their professional minds. Most likely, their own fathers had one or two jobs their entire life and constantly talked about security in terms of life inside of four office walls instead of the information security we talk about today. Work ethic to these professionals traditionally meant long hours at the office, often arriving before their boss and leaving long after 5 p.m.

On the opposite side is the younger “Generation Digital” who doesn’t know a world without Internet, CDs, or cell phones. DOS is a foreign concept to them; they’ve never opened a brand new LP, and haven’t had to untangle a telephone cord. While the generation before them created the technology to enable efficiencies, this generation expects technology to drive automation. In fact, they wouldn't know what to do without it. They’re completely unimpressed with big titles and high-end office furniture, and are more content working from their apartment or even a local coffee shop. While they might not be first in or last out of the office, most of this generation is connected nearly 24/7.

There’s also a sort of fearless attitude from the younger generation. They don’t seem intimidated by managers with letters after their name and are less concerned with what people think about them than they are with making things happen.

These fundamental differences in the way the two generations integrate work with personal life, communicate with each other and their peers, learn and internalize information, accept or reject new ideas, respond to highly structured or more dotted line work environments, and see the world in general are widely accepted in today’s social environment, but often cause confusion, discomfort and communication breakdown when they are present in the workplace.

Meeting in the middle

 To bridge the gap, it is essential to establish clear communication between these two dynamically different workforces. In addition to realizing how younger workers perceive their roles, older professionals need to guide and mentor, yet deliver this knowledge in a way younger workers can consume, relate to, and appreciate.

Similarly, younger workers need to understand the value of experience. Those organizations that succeed identify the need to communicate and teach fundamentals of business and industry, while enabling younger generations to incorporate new technologies and take calculated risk to be dynamic in a new "connected" age.

Crossing the divide in real life

We are seeing examples of companies, and even events, making amazing strides in bridging this gap. Earlier this year at Microsoft’s World Partner Conference, a group of emerging leaders, including Avalara’s Asher Mathew, led an entire conference track devoted to the younger generation. Not only was the Emerging Leaders’ debut a complete success, but it made front-page news on Microsoft’s website.

The Value Added Reseller (VAR) community has its own trailblazers who want to bridge this gap. At Axis Integrated Solutions, for example, owner Kelly Hummel has spent years “training” her protégé, Holly McGuire, by teaching her not only the business itself, but the kind of information that isn’t written in books or manuals—in other words, real-life experience. Interesting fact: most of these learning sessions have often occurred outside of the office, in the car during their commute to clients’ offices in the Midwest.

Even technology and CPA affiliations such as the Information Technology Alliance (ITA) have responded to this challenge with the launch of GenNow and an ITA mentoring program to provide formal and informal opportunities for young professionals to learn, collaborate, grow, and receive training and mentoring from their industry colleagues.

This may sound fine and dandy on paper, but for many professionals in today’s business world, there always seems to be some kind of excuse: Not enough time, young professionals don’t have any respect, old guys will never change, and perhaps the worst of all, changing something isn’t going to make a difference anyway.

Looking at the end result might help build motivation to make these internal investments. It can be time-consuming, tedious and you might even hit some bumps along the way, but just think about the infinite, positive opportunities right in front of you. You’ll build loyalty and create employees who are invested in your organization. Some day, they may even want to be an integral part of ushering in a new wave of stronger, more involved leaders who will, themselves, be forced to reach across a whole new generational gap.

Kim Hogan is on Intuit’s Strategic Accounts Team where she partners with accountants to bring their businesses into the cloud. Follow her on Twitter @Kimtuitive and contact her at kim_hogan@intuit.com. As part of Avalara’s Channel Development team, Matt Kantelis is responsible for managing relationships with business partners. Contact him at matthew.kantelis@avalara.com.

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