Competitive pressures have increased the demand for superior performance by employees in every setting imaginable. Yet with a tight budgetary environment as well as workforce shifts, the challenge for federal agencies is how to bring employees’ knowledge base up to the required levels of excellence with the least disruptive impact on operations and cost.
That is particularly true as successive generations move into positions of responsibility. Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, account for 26% of the total U.S. population. Although many are postponing retirement, nationally, 10,000 Boomers retire each day – taking with them years of work experience and institutional knowledge.
With staffing levels pared back as far as they can go, federal agencies are challenged to transfer this experience and knowledge to the next generation of workers – the Millennial generation, born between 1980 and 1995, who are entering the workforce at a rapid rate. Millennials are tech savvy, and social media has made them the most connected and transparent in history. Higher education has also taught them to appreciate teamwork and diversity.
For knowledge sharing to seamlessly happen between Boomers and Millennials, organizations must recognize each group’s cultural differences, while at the same time, acknowledge the cultural value that each group can bring to the work setting.
Opening the Door to Knowledge Sharing
The best way to learn a new culture or language is through the full immersion of that new culture or language. Gaining value from divergent cultural groups like the Boomers and Millennials is no different. The quickest way for each group to learn the other’s culture is to become fully acquainted with the people in that culture.
As a result, the first critical step in knowledge sharing between these two groups is for cultural immersion to take place.
Cultural differences between generations are most apparent in the understanding of current pop culture trends. Understanding the Millennials’ frame of reference through pop culture can bring product and service innovation to an organization.
Some effective ways to implement a cultural immersion in your organization include: the allowance of personal expression through contemporary fashion trends (so long as the expression does not conflict with an organization’s core values) and the acceptance of flexible work schedules with opportunities to work off-site or from home.
Generational disparity among workers, if not handled properly, can stymie a team’s progress. Creating opportunities for cultural immersion is fertile ground for diversity training. Wherever cultural differences exist, opportunities for diversity sensitivity become vital to the success of a team to work at their full potential.
For instance, when our company, Benjamin Enterprises, created a marketing cohort of Boomers and Millennials, our strategy became grounded by solid marketing principles, yet, innovative and forward thinking in our use of social media. The strategy was to capitalize on the Millennials’ desire to work in teams while leveraging the Boomers’ ability to lead groups.
Building a mixed group taps into the strength of each generation and uses these strengths to propel the knowledge transfer within the group.
Today’s virtual work habits take advantage of the Millennials’ computer skills and abilities. A virtual work strategy is effective for companies with limited budgets. New York-based branches of the General Services Administration (GSA) created work systems that enabled Millennials to transfer their computer skills to the Boomers.
Free apps, such as DropBox, Sandbox or Google Docs, can be used to manage projects across several departments. Electronic documentation of processes and systems promote interdisciplinary knowledge sharing regardless of geographic location.
Team Environment Fosters Knowledge Sharing
The stronger the team bond, the greater they will complement each other to achieve departmental goals. The Department of Defense, the GSA and the Small Business Administration are examples of agencies that have created formal mentor-protégé programs to encourage collaboration between large and small businesses.
These same business growth principles can be applied to peer-to-peer mentorship initiatives to foster an environment for sharing and learning. Websites like Mentor.org offer helpful advice and free information on how to set up a mentorship program.
Budgets have been trimmed back, yet agencies can still find cost efficient ways to create an engaging workplace. This is particularly important for Millennials, who expect to have fun and make friends at work.
One way to keep the fun in work and build strong teams is to encourage Millennials and Boomers to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports league or community events. For instance, IBM employees have created a quilting club where members meet on weekends to discuss and exhibit their projects.
Multi-generational teams that find similarities in either personal or professional interest groups have a camaraderie that spills over to support strong work teams and results to job tasks. Several members of the IBM quilting group are required to travel to various countries to complete their work. Non-traveling members of the quilting group have reported how they enjoy supporting each other while at home base. While quilting groups may not be the answer for federal agencies, the creative approach in bringing people together can be.
To ensure the success of balancing work standards with team collaboration and fun events, it’s important to meet with your team and agree on department core values. If these core values are agreed upon in advance, individuals should be held accountable to adhere to these values.
Agency cultures that emphasize high levels of achievement balanced by periods of laughter and collaboration can uncover new process innovations for the department.
Building teams of divergent personalities, if managed well, can also create an engaging work environment and yield great dividends in innovation for the agency. Teams can be designed through the use of assessment tools like Strengths Finders 2.0 or KOLBE. These tools can help determine the strengths and weaknesses of your teams, and to strategically place people together who can balance each other.
The best way to encourage innovation is to create teams where people think differently, yet are measured on the attainment of specific goals and the team’s ability to learn new skills quickly.
By honoring diversity and using strategies of cultural immersion to share knowledge, you will achieve your agency’s plan of succession and gain new innovations at the same time – a win-win.
Michelle Benjamin is founder and CEO of Benjamin Enterprises, specializing in workforce solutions through labor management and training for major organizations.