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Holding Onto Paper and Letting Go

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March 9, 2009

How do you deal with the old guys? A Rutgers college journalism student posed that question to me when I visited my alma matter this semester to talk to a class about newsroom management.

His question seemed innocent enough, but it serves as an important reminder that while some partners view these 20-somethings as strange and defiant, the younger generations see many of their Boomer bosses and co-workers as stuck in their ways.

"A lot of times when you ask older workers why they do things the way they do, you'll find the answer is, 'That's the way we've always done it,'" I told the class. "I find that if you offer an alternative that doesn't make their lives drastically more difficult, they're open to suggestion."

This scenario can even prove true when that younger worker is a subordinate to the older one, provided their suggestion can be carried out and makes sense, or money.

The student smiled confidently. But I wanted to stress that getting his way isn't always possible-or worth the fight.

If, for example, you wanted to implement a policy in which all reporters emailed you their story ideas, but a guy who has been with the paper 25, 30 years insists on printing it out and handing it to you, cut the guy a break.

He certainly has tons of connections and he's still giving you what you want, only in a different format that doesn't make your life drastically more difficult.

This response stemmed from an interview I conducted last year with Glen Keenan, the Gen X president of XCM Solutions, which provides workflow software for accountants to track the status of the returns in their office electronically instead of having to do it with paper trails.

XCM hired a tax compliance officer with 30 years' experience who preferred doing things the old-fashioned way, even though the company itself created these gadgets, which Keenan touts as being important to retaining the younger generation of college grads looking to work someplace that's on top of the latest technology.

Keenan's argument is that if these prospective employees visit firms that are hip to the newest trends they will be more impressed - and therefore more likely to accept a job offer - than they would had they visited a cluttered office with papers piled all over the floor.

On the other hand, he believes it remains important to accommodate the veterans who have gleaned a great deal of knowledge and have proven they can be as productive as their colleagues even without special software.

So Keenan told his new employee that he could do things the way he wanted to, but that he'd be responsible for the same amount of work as others in the organization.

Firms that want to introduce new technology also can use the situation as an opportunity to re-evaluate the roles of various staff members, Keenan suggested. For example, a 70-year-old CPA may be more valuable doing other things besides preparing workpapers, he said.

Recalling this conversation, I looked around the room full of eager students typing away on their laptops, and I realized how reluctant I, myself, am to let go of my pen and notepad 10 years after graduating.

After all, that's the way I've always done things.

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