Encouraging Cross-Mentorship To Bridge The Generational Digital Divide

By Russ Banham


Baby Boomers in the workforce have amassed decades of experience over a lifetime of workplace changes. Meanwhile, Millennials are relatively new to their jobs, but as digital natives they instinctively understand how to use the latest software and applications. Can these odd bedfellows find common ground?

Cross-mentorship may provide the way to bridge this generational divide. While typical mentorship is the means by which a typically older worker advises younger mentees, cross-mentorship applies the same principle in reverse.

The idea is already being applied informally. Millennials who often advise their parents on technology are passing on their knowledge to older colleagues. The quid pro quo is for Boomers to coach younger employees about business specifics.

This knowledge transfer is direly needed. With many Baby Boomers postponing retirement and Millennials now representing the largest labor demographic in the workforce, a generational divide is emerging in many companies. Widening the divide is younger employees’ technological knack.

“Millennials are highly intuitive in their use of technology,” said Gaurav Dhillon, co-founder, chairman and CEO of SnapLogic, a provider of cloud integration solutions. “They’ve grown up in an environment of instant technological gratification, expecting applications and software to load immediately. They’ve brought their self-service expectations to the workplace at a time when older generations of employees still struggle to use the latest technology.”

Older But Seasoned

Unlike Millennials, Baby Boomers and Generation X employees grew up with TVs that had knobs. They had no internet or streaming video, no social networks or smartphones. They were tech industry test subjects, enduring the fits and starts of green-screen computers connected to landline telephones. It’s no wonder they may begrudge tech-savvy Millennials’ ability to navigate a smartphone without instructions.

But older generations have industry sector smarts that were achieved through many years of absorbing the nuances of business. Veteran employees can teach less experienced workers what it’s like to go through multiple up and down economic cycles; how to build meaningful careers over many years; how to laugh at your mistakes and draw useful lessons from them.

The goal of cross-mentorship is to promote cross-learning experiences without disrespecting either person’s knowledge. Otherwise, there is the risk of breeding workplace distrust, envy and disengagement.

“If you tell seasoned employees that they have to sit down with someone in their 20s to learn how to use the latest technology, they may shut down,” said Cecile AlperLeroux, an economic anthropologist who speaks frequently on the challenges confronting the workforce. “Similarly, you don’t want to compel younger people to sit down to learn how their more senior colleagues do something, which might make them feel deficient and less likely to contribute freely. Rather, you want to create shared experiences where people from different generations can interact positively with one another.”

She provided the example of a technology client with an internship program that did not initially appreciate the value of cross-mentorship.

“A 15-year seasoned software architect was told by a senior director that a young engineer right out of college would mentor him on what’s new in the world of technology infrastructures,” said Alper-Leroux. “Not surprisingly, he recoiled. Had he been asked to meet with the individual to share their experiences, the seasoned architect explaining the history of the decisions behind the company’s architecture and the young engineer imparting newer techniques, both individuals come away more informed and respectful of each other’s knowledge.”

Bridging Generations

In these multigenerational interactions, employees should discuss what they have in common first, says Alper-Leroux, vice president of human capital management innovation at Ultimate Software, where she helps business leaders respond to evolving workplace dynamics. “You want to build a foundation of trust and respect, which begins with a sharing of information,” she explained. “Then, the discussion can progress to differences in communication styles — why older generations are comfortable taking notes with a pen and paper, and more recent ones tap them into their smartphones or tablets.”

Both scenarios of note-taking are perfectly fine, yet each generation may view the other’s style as either out of touch or a pretentious display of ability. Many Baby Boomers and Generation Xers still find it rude when Millennials text during a meeting. But this doesn’t faze younger people. More seasoned employees overlook the fact that when they were young, older colleagues begrudged their strong desire to use early personal computers and email.

Generation gaps are nothing new, and the only way to breach the divide is to foster communication and understanding.

“We all have something valuable to offer each other,” Alper-Leroux added.

Russ Banham is a veteran business journalist and author of more than two dozen books.

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