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The Debate over Differences at Work across Generations

This series of posts covers a number of issues related to the differences in generations, specifically in engineering organizations. Today’s post cites an interesting table from Rawn Shah on the differences in how people from different generations work and puts it into the context of an engineering organization.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken a look at a judo-move for Boomer engineers, the rare resource that GenX engineers might become and the misalignment between GenY expectations and the historical development of an engineer over time. And there’s a lot of detail that we missed along the way. There truly are dramatic differences across generations in engineering. But back in July, Rawn Shah who is a consultant for social networking for business over at IBM, contributing an interesting post to called Why You Must Network With Your Younger Employees (nod o’ thanks to @abelniak on twitter). Now I disagree with Rawn on several points in this post including his statements saying that Boomers hoard and control information and the fact that he grouped GenY’ers and Millenials together, but he posted a very interesting table that compares and contrasts some characteristics across generations:


When you put this into the context of engineering, some interesting things captured my attention.

  • Problem solving is right at the top of the list, and if there’s anything a really good engineer needs to do, it’s solve problems. I have seen Boomers tend towards a roll up approach to problems compared to GenY’ers, who are open and don’t care as much who exactly gets credit at the end of the day.
  • In recent times, the job of engineering a product has only become more distributed, whether that’s across multiple company technical centers or in collaboration with suppliers. It’s also become more program and project focused in that large and tough problems are cut up, distributed and then solved. In this way, task focus and communication becomes critical. And from the initiatives that I’ve seen, multi-tasking and over-communication has become a higher priority.
  • From a decision making and learning style perspective, I’ve also seen more and more engineering organizations move towards an emphasis on team consensus and support as opposed to the single hero who shoulders the biggest burden. However that desire to become less reliant on a single individual hasn’t kept many from going back to the well when an engineering project is really in a pinch.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Do you agree with how Mr. Shah has characterized different generations in workplace? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • I agree with the meta-point that Rawn makes in the article, but I think that grouping too much under one label makes it easy to disagree with. Also, I think much of what is described under the ‘Millenials’ category is an ideal, and not an actual (at least in my experience). I concur that when working in distributed teams, over-communicating is a necessity (though not rarely done). What might be better is communicating the right information at the right time. For example, legend has it that Google employees are required to submit a short blog post (call it a blog, call it an update, call it whatever you like) internally each day or at the end of each week to let their managers and extended team know what they accomplished. This lets others offer help, feedback, praise, etc. It also lets someone else some in and pick up where that original person left off. So, for Google, this is the right ‘amount’ of feedback in the right intervals to let them do what they do.

    In my experience also: boomers are not accustomed to staying hyper-connected and getting more (but shorter) messages. I’ve seen boomers break down and become uncommunicative when this happens. So, I think boomers need to re-draw their lines on expectations, and I think Gen Xers, Yers, and millenials need to consider who is consuming their content, and adjust it accordingly.

    • Valid points all Alan. One point of clarification. Was it with the use of email that the Boomers broke down and became more uncommunicative? Or was it other channels too like phone / voicemail, face-to-face meetings, etc. It would be interesting to tease apart the communication channel from communication frequency in a study to see what happened.

  • Frequency was definitely the larger factor. But type, too, played a role. Some folks are just married to the phone, and can’t be bothered with pecking out an email message.