SHARE in Anaheim Journal: The Changing Face of Mainframe Computing

Best-selling author Jason Dorsey kicked off last week’s SHARE in Anaheim conference by telling attendees, “For the first time ever, there are four generations in the workforce.” And participants in the conference run by SHARE – an independent, volunteer-run association providing IBM customers with user-focused education, professional networking and a forum to influence the information technology industry – from each of those generations filled the room for Dorsey’s keynote speech: “Crossing the Generational Divide: Leveraging the Power of Generations™ for Your Strategic Advantage.”

When Dorsey polled the crowd from the stage, about half the people in the audience raised their hands as Baby Boomers, the group his organization, the Center for Generational Kinetics (GenHQ.com), defines as people born between 1946 and 1964.  But GenX – people born between 1965 and 1976 — and GenY – people born between 1977 and 1995 – had strong showings, too, with each group representing about a quarter of the attendees in the room.  Even Traditionalists – the generation born before 1946 – made their presence known with about a dozen hands in the air.

The impromptu survey demonstrated the changing face of mainframe computing and highlighted the fact that SHARE participants cope with cross-generational challenges in the workplace day in and day out.  As the generation that grew up with mainframe computing, Boomers are the largest cohort working with the technology.  As this multitude of Boomers ages, GenX is anxious to take the reins of the mainframe, just as the ranks of GenY are beginning to swell.  For many in GenY, their new mainframe jobs are their first jobs, even while more and more Traditionalists remain in the game, whether for economic reasons or love of career.

While the generational evolution of mainframe technology from Traditionalists to Boomers to GenX to GenY clearly is building momentum, no one claims the progress is all smooth sailing.  Dorsey said the pains of generational transition make sense, as each group can hold different mindsets based on regional traditions and the influence of parenting styles applied to them.

Each generation tends to hold differing views of measuring success, Dorsey explained.  Because many Traditionalists remember the austerity of the Great Depression and/or the trauma of World War II, they tend to be comfortable with “delayed gratification,” he said.  Boomers “define work ethic” with metrics and believe “there are no shortcuts,” according to Dorsey, while GenXers are “natural skeptics” who believe “actions speak louder than words.”  GenY workers, he said, usually are “outcome-driven” and crave reinforcement for “ongoing progress.”

So, the same situation – infrequent communication from one’s boss – may draw vastly different reactions from the different generations.

Traditionalists (who often times may be the boss) could see a lack of discussion as just “getting on with business,” Dorsey said.  “But if your boss is not talking to you and you’re a Boomer, you’re probably thinking you’re doing a good job,” he said, because Boomers prize independence and initiative.  On the other hand, GenX’s desire for constructive criticism and GenY’s fondness for continual positive feedback and verbal support could lead workers in those generations to conclude a quiet supervisor is a disapproving boss.

Dorsey’s comments about the differing profiles of each generation suggested to me (a professional communications strategist) some techniques that could enhance collaboration across generations:

  • Traditionalists supervising Boomers and vice versa should consider favoring face-to-face meetings for important and/or complex topics, as the style and experience of each generation may be more amenable to the format.
  • Boomers supervising GenXers and vice versa should consider investing time in detailed reporting and graphics to support their communications, as many Boomers show a preference for metrics and many GenXers demonstrate a penchant for a strong analytical case.

In closing his keynote address, Dorsey focused on helping SHARE in Anaheim participants cope with one of the trickiest cross-generational challenges in today’s workplace for Traditionalist, Boomer or GenXer: Welcoming GenY to the fold.  He offered 3 strategies for attracting, training and leading GenY talent:

  1. Create a social brand.
    Use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to find and engage GenY talent – before and after hiring.  Dorsey demonstrated the speed and ease of social channels by asking the crowd to pull out their smartphones and “like” his Facebook page in less than 30 seconds.
  2. Make the 1st day of work “unforgettable.
    Instead of ordering business cards after a GenY employee arrives at the office, have a box available the first day, Dorsey suggested.  For orientation, assign another GenY employee of the same gender to give a tour.  “GenY workers will ask more questions that way,” he said.
  3. Provide specific examples of performance.       
    “GenY lacks real-world experience,” Dorsey said. So, bring skills-transfer to life with pictures and video.  Not only is a generation awash in texting and tweeting comfortable with digital media, audio and video scale rapidly from one to many.  “Record it once and share!” Dorsey quipped.

As an example of his point about specific examples, Dorsey offered the definition of the “Business Casual” dress code.  Traditionalists may view Business Casual as wearing dress slacks with a dress shirt but leaving the jacket and tie in the closet.  Boomers and GenXers may share similar ideas about acceptable business dress – i.e., khakis and a polo shirt – because the evolution to Business Casual occurred largely during their careers. But GenY?  Jeans, t-shirts and even flip-flops all fall into the realm of possibilities.

Dorsey’s advice for resolving the differing perspectives: “Take out your smartphone, snap a picture of someone in acceptable business casual dress” and text, post, email, etc., to staff as a way to “record it once and share.”

Dorsey said workers of any generation have something in common their first day on the job: “We all have something to learn.”

Advice that reminded attendees at SHARE in Anaheim of another truth: We all have a lot we can teach, too.

Communications strategist Bob Dirkes attended SHARE in Anaheim on special assignment. Follow him on Twitter @RCDirkes.  Follow SHARE on Twitter @SHAREhq.  Next “Journal” entry: Big Opportunities in Big Data.

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