Millennials vs. Boomers: 5 ways to end bickering and ensure knowledge transfer

You’re leading the most complex, multi-generational IT workforce ever. Make sure specialized expertise doesn’t fall through the generation gap
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Millennials now make up the majority of today’s workforce but Boomers won’t be retiring anytime soon. (According to Pew Research Center data, as of 2017, 56 million Millennials (those ages 21 to 36 in 2017) were working or looking for work, compared to 53 million Generation Xers, and 41 million Baby Boomers.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers aged 55 and over are staying in their jobs at pre-1970’s rates. Meanwhile, Gen-Xers are jockeying for some coveted leadership roles that Boomers haven't relinquished.

Yet the industry’s appetite for emergent technologies, like AI, machine learning, and blockchain, is scrambling the pecking order and recent grads are winning prestigious posts with their fresh expertise. What’s the result? You’re leading the most complex, multi-generational workforce ever. 

[ Working on your emotional intelligence? Learn the behaviors to avoid as you build your EQ: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

In the decades I’ve been helping IT teams manage talent risk, I’ve learned that structured knowledge transfer (KT) is the very best way to safeguard and share critical technical expertise, especially in diverse and dynamic work environments like the one we’re in right now. Here are my top five rules to live by when transferring knowledge across the generations.

1. Get your whole team fluent in the business big picture

What’s our team’s core purpose? Who are our customers? How do we measure success? When every team member can answer these questions by heart, you’ll know your staff is on the same page, no matter their age or stage. Your business big picture is the common language that grounds the knowledge transfer process even before it begins. Without fluency in big-picture goals and purpose, the minutiae of day-to-day work will almost certainly get lost in translation. 

2. Don’t overvalue age and tenure

Experienced staff can pass ingrained bad habits onto others.

Long-tenured staff members have years of experience to draw from to do their work, but age and incumbency aren’t inherently valuable. Experienced staff can pass ingrained bad habits onto others, especially when mentoring relationships are informal or ad hoc. The fix here is to formalize the knowledge transfer process. Itemize the knowledge to be replicated by apprentice workers, right down to the most discrete tasks, and you’ll see legacy bad habits fall by the wayside.

3. Set clear roles and expectations

Whether older engineers are mentoring Millennials or forty-year veterans are learning from coders young enough to be their grandchildren, structure and clarity must be baked into the knowledge transfer process.

For your experts, be exacting about teaching requirements, timelines for transferring knowledge, and how KT should be prioritized in their day-to-day work. Similarly, ensure apprentices know precisely which tasks they’ll need to master before you’ll let them loose on the exciting work that awaits. Too often, the ambiguity that accompanies both formal and ad hoc mentoring results in little teaching, even less learning, and a failed knowledge transfer project.

4. Empower the apprentice

An apprentice has the most to gain.

This rule runs counter to accepted teacher/student protocol: Put the job of knowledge transfer primarily into the hands of the apprentice. This works because an apprentice has the most to gain. When armed with knowledge transfer tools, processes and goals, an eager apprentice of any age will make knowledge transfer a priority and be ready to tackle new work quickly.

5. Test the transfer

Here’s something to look out for: Work may be getting done, but that doesn’t mean the apprentice is up-to-speed – or even doing the work. A reason many experts are ridiculously busy and become bottlenecks in an organization is that they won’t let go. This tendency is especially pernicious in Boomers who can become obstacles for next-generation workers who want to be independent.

While overseeing a knowledge transfer project at a nuclear plant, I worked with a veteran mentor who was adamant that his young apprentice did not have enough experience to be trusted with critical tasks. But, she was eager to do some real work and begged her mentor to stop breathing down her neck. Together, the three of us compiled a list of skills she would need to master. Then, we wrote complex, nuanced questions she would need to answer to prove she was ready to take on the new tasks unsupervised.

In some cases, the apprentice was much further along than her mentor imagined. In other areas, the impatient apprentice was shocked by how much she still needed to learn. In the end, both people got what they wanted. She proved she was ready to tackle some new work and he identified specific knowledge gaps that still needed to be filled.

It is possible to sidestep the mythical generation gap and build a stronger more collaborative technical team faster, using structured knowledge transfer techniques. If you follow these rules, your team will be clear on expectations and more confident in their roles, regardless of their age. And – perhaps most importantly – you’ll be satisfied that the right work is getting done along the way.

[ Should you try having younger workers mentor older ones? Read Reverse mentoring: Is it right for IT? ]

As Principal of The Steve Trautman Co., he provides executives with proven ways to assess workforce risk, internally share knowledge, motivate staff and reduce the loss of unique knowledge and expertise when employees leave, transfer teams or retire. In his work with Fortune 500 companies, Steve pioneered a revolutionary way to identify talent risk and solve it using hard data.

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