Sunday, March 8, 2009

SDM Best Thesis Prize awarded for generation gaps research - SDM Pulse, Spring 2009

David Kim
SDM ’07
By David Kim, SDM ’07

Editor’s note: David Kim was awarded the SDM Best Thesis Prize in October 2008 for his paper, “Generation Gaps in Engineering?”

The idea of a “generation gap” has profound implications for the business community—misunderstandings and conflict can damage work relationships, hurt productivity, and impede success. In addition, companies risk damage caused by “brain drain” unless knowledge can be successfully transferred from more experienced employees who are about to enter retirement to succeeding generations.

Nevertheless, I found that empirical research was lacking on generational differences and their effect on organizations. In my SDM master’s thesis, I therefore investigated three questions within the context of an engineering organization: Do generational differences exist? How pronounced are they? And, if the differences do exist, what are the implications for the organization?

Through the literature, I found that the most widely accepted “generational” school of thought maintains that values are imprinted for life by defining historical events that occur as people mature into adulthood. This theory divides the current U.S. workforce into four distinct generations:
  • Traditionalists (born between 1900 and 1945). This generation numbers approximately 55 million as of 2005; those who remain in the workforce tend to be in management. Having lived through world wars and the Great Depression, Traditionalists value stability and respond best to command-and-control structures. Many still lack technological literacy—their understanding and proficiency in the use of computers, the Internet, and other tools of the Information Age are limited.
  • Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). At 80 million strong, Boomers dominate upper management today. Having lived through the booming post-war economy, they are marked by optimism and confidence. They are also very competitive. Baby Boomers, like Traditionalists, are still learning to use modern technology in everyday tasks.
  • Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1980). This influential population of about 46 million is marked by skepticism. With shared experiences such as Watergate, the Challenger explosion, and the tripling of the U.S. divorce rate, they distrust relationships and put more faith in themselves. They respond to well-defined goals and leaders who give them autonomy. They are resourceful, independent, individualistic, and highly techno-literate.
  • Millennials (born between 1981 and 1999). Born into a world of advanced technology, the 75 million Millennials are bringing technical competence, high speed, and energy into the workplace. Born into affluence and relative peace, Millennials are confident and optimistic. They have high expectations of themselves and their employers. They favor an inclusive style of management.
It is easy to see the potential for problems between these groups, even though this list barely touches upon the many generational differences discussed in the literature. To help identify the “root” differences, I used a Mind Map, a powerful graphic tool for organizing the themes of a subject according to associations of greater and lesser importance. The Mind Map allowed me to organize and categorize the wealth of data and determine what I believed to be most important to an engineering organization’s operation: differences in communication techniques, leadership preferences, learning styles, and work motivation.

Next I developed a survey to test whether these differences actually exist and can have an affect on a real
organization. The key differences identified during literature research formed the basis of a questionnaire, constructed such that participants could not recognize its subject to be generational differences.

The 29-question online survey was distributed to an engineering team in a large defense company. The sample of 357 engineers—approximately 80 members from each generation—were randomly picked from locations on the east coast of the United States to minimize noise relating to potentially varying cultures across the country.

From the 177 responses received, the most significant finding was that generational differences were less pronounced than expected. Of primary significance was the fact that face-to-face communication was deemed critical and most effective by all generations, particularly for discussing technical questions. This finding confirms Professor Tom Allen’s research, which found face-to-face communication vital to furthering technological innovation among engineers. The implication for organizations is that physically arranging office space so that many generations have the opportunity to come together face to face has immense potential to improve the flow of knowledge.

The data also indicated that, regardless of age, engineers are generally amenable to technology and
computers. Foremost, almost everyone regarded computers as part of life; very few saw computers as annoying or complicated. And while much of literature indicated that older generations struggle with newer forms of technology, the survey found older generations are using electronic communication without much difficulty. In fact, Baby Boomers were using e-mail more than any other generation.

Since globalization has made it impossible for companies to rely entirely on face-to-face communication, this
widespread comfort with newer technology suggests that engineering organizations can successfully employ
innovative information technology (IT) approaches to communication when face-to-face interaction is not

Another useful finding was that all generations value one-on-one training and mentorship. Since the survey also revealed that Traditionalists and Baby Boomers plan to work in some capacity after retirement, an organization might reasonably consider developing mentorship programs—pre- and post-retirement—to ensure the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another.

Other survey findings include:
  • Attitudes toward both younger and older leaders were similar across the generations. This alleviates much of the concern expressed in the literature about younger leaders managing older employees.
  • Engineers from all generations expressed the desire to further their education in their respective technical areas with younger generations also showing interest in leadership and management training.
Although I was only able to scratch the surface of the “generation gaps” issue in the SDM thesis, the discoveries were fascinating. I also realized that while categorizing can provide valuable insights, dividing people into groups can also lead to dangerous stereotyping. My hope is that, by presenting facts as objectively as possible, I was able to increase awareness of the complexity of the social issues that affect engineering organizations, as well as the importance of including these issues in any systems approach to managing such enterprises.

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