Breaking through generational barrier with collaboration tools

By Chris Thompson, Senior Director of Solutions Marketing, Unified Communications at Cisco

Johannesburg, 07 Nov 2008
Read time 4min 40sec

CIOs often buy productivity tools only to be disappointed when there doesn't seem to be any return on investment. In many cases, the problem isn't the tools; it's that workers don't use them.

One way CIOs might get more mileage out of such technology is by better understanding the generational differences within the work force, and looking for ways to support collaboration between these different groups.

Each generation has markedly different styles and preferences of how they communicate and work together. You can break them down into four groups:

* Millenials: Are the future of the workforce
* Gen X: Currently in middle management
* Baby boomers: Tend to be running companies and departments
* Retireds and rehireds: The mature workforce. Some may retire to come back on a part-time or full-time basis

How can a CIO create an environment where these disparate tribes can come together? That's a challenge CIOs should consider as well as the latest hardware or software.


First, there are the millennials, the people just entering the work force. They were born connected.

* Grew up with the Internet
* Use desktop collaboration tools without a second thought
* Expect to always be connected
* E-mail isn't an important tool for them; social networking is
* Phones are preferred devices, although not necessarily for the voice applications

Millennials organise around their interests, establishing very casual connections via social networking with people they may have never met.

Gen X

Second, there's Gen X. That's my generation (I'm 40).

* Internet-centric, just starting to think about life without a home phone
* Socially organised around school and work associations
* Not naturally collaborative

We tend to be skeptical, but we're enamored with technology.

Baby boomers

Third are baby boomers. They tend to be:

* Connected by desktop or laptops, and are less Web focused
* Restrictive around norms and business processes
* Have been in the workforce long enough to know what works for them
* Originally non-conformists, but they expect people to conform
* They like standardisation

Their comfort level with technology varies widely. They're not technology adverse; but they've developed styles and preferences that are not likely to change.

Retireds and rehireds

Fourth are the retireds and rehireds. They:

* Are not necessarily technophobes, but a lot of technology standards are new to them
* Don't use tech that much at home
* Desire to collaborate in person or by voice
* Don't see computing as a recreational activity

Building the collaborative environment

One generation's way of working doesn't always mesh well with another's. What is normal to millennials -pulling out a laptop at a meeting or checking e-mail during a presentation - is viewed as disrespectful by the others. Millennials are time agnostic; they don't work well with schedules. Gen Xers and Boomers prefer to work in real-time; millennials are comfortable in non-real time, collaborating via blogs or Facebook.

The question, then, is what can CIOs do to help such different generations work together? How do you build an environment conducive to collaboration?

There's a technology angle. How do you pick products and services that don't force users into a style that's not comfortable for them?

Customising productivity

You have to give people the freedom to work in the way that brings out their productivity. They're not going to change their style. Forcing someone who prefers a mobile device into a desktop-bound environment isn't good for them or the enterprise.

People always default to the easiest-use alternative. CIOs should look for devices and solutions that are flexible and lend themselves to customisation. Make the tools suit the users, not the other way around.

Finding common ground: The CIO's role

Part of it is understanding the company's corporate culture. What things are flexible and what are not. At Cisco, meetings don't always start on time but a rigid adherence to schedule is less important than that people say what they think. A CIO needs to analyse what the corporate culture values are and find the tools to enable those priorities.

Some of this is obviously beyond the purview of the CIO alone. Executive management will set the tone for the enterprise. But the CIO can be proactive in communicating with executives in order to foster a more collaborate environment.

CIOs should view themselves like co-pilots with management. Before a plane takes off, the pilot and co-pilot go through a pre-flight checklist to make sure that everything needed for a safe trip is in place.

CIOs, too, should put together a checklist for collaborative tools. What are the requirements, the mandatory features, followed by the nice-to-haves? I suggest CIOs purposely survey their user base along generational lines. What are the requirements cited by boomers? By millennials? It's the CIO's job to find the common ground.

Networkers at Cisco Live! will take place at the Sandton Convention Centre from 1 to 4 December 2008. The central theme of this year's event is 'The Power of Collaboration'. Visit for more information.

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