How millennial managers can get the most out of their boomer staff

As millennials begin to dominate the workforce, some boomers are getting pushed to the sidelines. But savvy managers find ways to take advantage of the experience these older workers bring to the mix.

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By 2019, Pew Research expects the millennial generation to overtake aging baby boomers in numbers, and millennials will rule the workplace.

Nevertheless, boomers can still wield some influence.

"Don't count the boomers out," said Phil Blair, co-founder of Manpower San Diego. "They are a force to be reckoned with. They are not looking at long-term care any time soon. They still have knowledge to share with the younger generation."

Yet when millennial IT managers look at today's business world, the action is so fast --especially in tech--that they may discount anyone who is not adroit with newer technologies, like collaboration tools, cloud-based project management software, instant messaging, Skype, and self-service help aids.

However, before millennial managers shove baby boomers out the door, they should consider the potential risks and pitfalls for business and IT, given that the knowledge base of boomers might not be easily replaceable.

"There are knowledge areas where we have exposure as boomers retire," a semiconductor industry manager told me. "What happens when we make a chip is that we might run into a problem because a particular material we want to use is in short supply. In the past, this wasn't a problem. We had the material science know-how onboard to work around the issue and come up with a different material that could replace the one in short supply. But now, with these guys gone, we have younger personnel who do not have the old training in material science that we used to have--so we wait until what we need becomes available and this delays time to market."

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A similar situation exists for legacy systems that continue to run in full force but are virtually "black box" unknowns to younger workers, who can't get down into the nuts and bolts of native code like their boomer counterparts.

One solution to the problem is for millennial managers is to keep boomers engaged in projects where they deliver high value, while at the same time preparing younger project members to assume more responsibility in the future.

Here are four areas of boomer skills that millennial managers in IT can focus on to build value and to achieve better performance in IT projects.

1. Person-to-person social skills

The millennial generation is the most digitally skilled in history, but potentially at the price of having poorer social skills. While much business can be conducted digitally, there is still value in working through an issue in person with an irate user or in going to lunch with a client. Boomers grew up in the face-to-face world. Many have excellent interpersonal skills they can share and transfer to millennials. These interpersonal skills matter as much as they did 30 years ago, and they're a hallmark of smoothly run projects.

2. The whys and wherefores of business processes

In an analysis I performed on software development projects two years ago, one of the questions I explored was why some projects succeeded when others didn't. In almost every case, successful projects had application developers who had a thorough understanding of the business they were developing for. Today, there is so much business process automation that many IT developers don't understand the business processes they are writing software for. This is an area where boomers really shine, because they remember why certain business processes are in place and what their purposes are. When boomers share this business knowledge with millennial developers, the apps get better.

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3. Mentoring and system know-how

If you are a millennial, it can be a mistake to assume you are more technically savvy than a boomer because you are more facile with mobile phones and apps. Instead, consider this: Technology aids have increased so that much native code is now routinely produced by wizards and buttons that you push and navigate. But when you have to configure or fine tune a system for optimal speed and performance (think airline and hotel reservations), it's necessary to get back into the native code. Boomers have great native code skills in transaction-based systems. This is why many large enterprises are actively teaming millennials with boomers, so millennials can also become fluent with these native codes that mission-critical systems and projects depend on.

4. War stories

It's important to impart the legends of yesterday to a new generation. I like to retell the story of the Y2K project and the sense of unity, purpose, and commitment IT'ers in every company across the nation experienced at the time. When I was a junior programmer just starting out, an older worker told me about the time a project was about to go live, and the chief programmer slipped on a step coming out of the data center and dropped a carefully ordered set of keypunch cards containing all the code, the cards scattering everywhere. The programmer sat on the floor and cried. Passing down these stories reminds IT pros that no matter what generation they are, they're part of an IT heritage. This builds bridges between generations and strengthens your project team.

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Your take

Have you found ways to help your boomer staff play to their strengths? What contributions do they make to your organization? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.


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