How to create harmony between the iPod generation and older managers

Strategy clinic: Our panel of experts offer advice on IT management dilemmas

The issue: Generation gap is hindering communication

I am concerned about the generation gap in our IT department. I and my three closest colleagues are in our fifties. Most of the other staff are in their twenties and seem to have little interest in long-term career development. Virtually all of them listen to iPods while they work, which doesn't help staff communication. Should I try to adopt a "younger" approach or ban the iPods and get tough?

The solutions:

Adopt a fresh attitude to dealing with young staff

Presumably you are the head of department, otherwise you are not in a position to "get tough". Getting tough in any event is probably the worst thing you could try: if your younger staff show little interest in career development, why should they hang around if you are adopting such an attitude?

Most of the people I work with are 20 to 35 years younger than me I do not find it a problem, but like all relationships it needs some work. Here are a few of the "attitudes" I try to adopt.

● Recognise that yes, the young are different. They have been brought up and educated in a different way to your generation - it does not make the environment you were brought up in better - just different.

● Try not to be pompous or superior - age confers no superiority at all.

● Do not claim to be more experienced - yes, years do give more exposure to management and inter-personal relationship issues, but the "youngsters" may well have far more experience in specific technology areas, for example.

● Show respect - you cannot expect this to be a one-way issue. They will have qualities, skills and attributes, both professional and in their personal lives, that deserve respect.

● Do not try to become "one of the lads" - there is nothing sadder. But you can relax with them and socialise to some extent.

● Be prepared to take a joke, be prepared for some gentle leg pulling - it shows you are human.

● Be prepared to listen, their perspective may well adjust your perspective.

Listening to music if it helps productivity cannot be bad - again it is just different to the way you do things. After all, people come to work to do just that, not to spend the day socialising.

Having said that, what about the coffee machine break? Try to utilise this as a time to chat - but give them some space, they will not want you at their shoulder every time they go for a coffee.

Incidentally, I am sure you are confident that the iPods are outputting music and not inputting data?

Yes to adopting a younger approach, so long as you do not go too far. Show some interest in their outside work interests and commitments, and talk about yours.

You mention a lack of interest in long-term career development: is that so surprising, given the general employment situation and our industry in particular?

Many young people are looking at numerous job and even career changes over their working life - again different to the older generation where one employer for life was not an unusual scenario.

You need to find out some more about why they appear to have a lack in long-term career development.

If you are the boss and you are about 30 years older, then it is very much down to you to work hard to bridge the gaps. If you succeed and develop good relationships, you will find it very rewarding and invigorating - I know I do.

Solution by Robin Laidlaw, president of the Computer Weekly 500 Club








Make sure younger team members feel involved

Your concerns about the "generation gap" between older and younger colleagues raises a number of issues. Personally, I find working with younger people can be stimulating and challenging, and after all, the younger members of the team are the leaders of the future. The complementary opportunity is for the older members of the team to be effective role models for the juniors. I do not think it is so much a question of banning iPods, more of instilling in the younger members of the team effective working practices.

Many developers find music helps, and providing they are developing code and not supposed to be interacting with colleagues or users, I would not attempt to try to prevent the silent iPod. However, for those whose main role is interacting with internal (or external) clients, I would encourage communication and listening.

Make sure the younger team members feel involved with what is going on. It would not be ethical or legal to select your team on grounds of age, but I would aim for a reasonably diverse workforce, not polarised in age or any other direction. In my view diversity aids creativity.

Solution by Ben Booth, chairman of BCS IT directors group Elite








This is an opportunity to shape the whole team

In these situations it is important to look much wider and tackle root causes. You will then be more likely to achieve a lasting success. An authoritarian ban could highlight the generation gap (unless you must enforce an existing policy restricting the connection of USB mass storage devices to the network), and I suspect you and the rest of our generation would struggle to carry off the hoodie look.

In your current leadership position you have an ideal opportunity to shape and influence the whole team and set the parameters. Rather than adopting a younger approach, bring the experience of your 50-something years to bear.

Start talking to the staff in your department. Listen to what they perceive to be their reality. Clarify to them what it is that you expect or need. If you have difficulty with this then you may face a bigger problem (or opportunity) in needing to clarify your department's role in supporting the wider organisation.

It is then down to you all to determine how to continue to maintain an open dialogue and to take what you hear forwards - perhaps through holding team building events ensuring that teams contain a mix of skills and experiences creating "quiet zones" for those who need them communicating with the department via podcasts or banning iPods if the consensus is that they hinder achieving individual or departmental objectives.

The key to success, however, will require building upon what you have in common and effectively utilising the diversity within your organisation, rather than dwelling on perceived differences.

Solution by Neil Robertson, senior manager at professional services firm Ernst & Young








Encourage the team to share skills and abilities

Bridging the age divide within an IT environment can present difficulties. While it is important to lead, manage and develop younger staff, they can often feel patronised or disinterested.

I would suggest that you develop a formal skills matrix which documents each individual's skills and abilities. You can then look at identifying a primary and secondary skills holder. Then seek to formalise skills arrangements by teaming people up in order to skills share and to increase the resilience of skills within the team. You may also wish to make skills sharing and knowledge transfer a formal objective for staff.

If you are not keen on pursuing a formal management approach to the communication and age divide, then perhaps a more traditional team building exercise may help. Often small outings such as mixing teams in an organised pub quiz can help. Alternatively, team meetings on management issues such as strategy development can encourage staff to open up and share ideas.

I would urge you not to implement a blanket ban on the iPods you do not want to be viewed as a dictatorship. Rather, try to encourage the staff to share skills, experience and ideas.

Solution by Roger Rawlinson, director of IT consultancy at NCC Group








Instigate alternative communication methods

If you want to alienate your staff, banning the iPods will achieve instant success. The question to ask is what impact are the iPods having on productivity? Do they enhance or lessen performance?

Providing the answer is the former, which I suspect it is (with young people music often helps concentration and blocks out unwanted distractions), then instigate an alternative communication mechanism such as coffee and croissants for 30 minutes each morning.

Encourage them to take time out and have lunch together and join them yourself. You do not need to adopt a younger approach, after all you do not want to become "mutton dressed as lamb", but you do need to take an interest in your staff and what they are doing both inside and outside of work.

Solution by Robina Chatham, visiting fellow in information Systems at Cranfield School of Management








Revitalise your operating model to bridge age gap

You need to start by unpicking two very different issues - the age gap between managers and staff, and the use of iPods while working.

For the age gap, it sounds like your operating model and succession plans need revitalising. It is tempting to think, as you do, that your younger staff's problem is a lack of interest in long-term career development. For those that want to stick to a technical role, this may well true. However, for others I think they may be hinting at another, more subtle, message.

If all their senior managers are now into their fifties, then maybe the IT management roles in your company need a rethink. They could be based on an obsolete IT operating model which will not appeal to aspiring new managers, who are likely to hear of more forward-thinking and interesting roles appearing elsewhere.

It is always worth remembering that they will understandably be thinking about the long-term relevance of their CV in what is still a rapidly-evolving environment.

The question regarding iPods is a different one, and centres on how this affects individual productivity and the wider working culture. There are some roles where listening to music is helpful, and some where it clearly is not.

Unless you want to implement a blanket ban, I suggest you establish and apply some role-based principles so that people know where they stand.

Solution by Chris Potts, director at consultancy Dominic Barrow








Focus on encouraging team communication

The core issue that you have highlighted is communication, which is a ubiquitous problem. It is not just about the generation gap, although that is one potential cause.

Perhaps the focus should be on deciding what methods and levels of communication you want to encourage, and agreeing with all your staff how to foster that type of environment.

You also raise the question of the attitude of younger staff to long-term career development. It may be helpful to assess how committed to professional development and learning these staff are, as opposed to a long-term company career. They may have judged that developing skills is what will keep them in a job rather than a more traditional approach to moving up the ladder within a single organisation.

The issue you raise is topical with the new legislation on age discrimination that applies to both older and younger staff. It is now imperative that all organisations consider how they deal with potential generation gap issues. Your question raises some key points that demonstrate this will not be an easy task.

Solution by Sharm Manwani, head of information management at Henley Management College








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