Bridging the Gap
We have been confronted with a seismic shift in our ability to communicate that is rivaled only by the invention of the Gutenberg press in and around 1440. Not to go too deeply into this, the Gutenberg press changed the laborious process of handwriting books, which limited their availability due to the length of time it took to reproduce a single copy, to a rapid almost assembly line speed. This allowed knowledge to spread throughout civilization at a much quicker pace than previously experienced. This dissemination of knowledge was responsible for enlarging the circle of intellectuals and eventually, after decades of struggle with those heavily invested in the previous paradigm, became the platform of social upheaval and, as some believe, was instrumental in the development of the industrial revolution.
The internet, as most of us understand it, is approximately 6,500 days old and, like the Gutenberg press, has changed the speed at which knowledge travels, upset the status quo of the previous paradigm, the late industrial revolution, and has been responsible for social upheaval to an unprecedented degree. Unlike the introduction of the printing press though, the internet has become a staple of communication worldwide in less than a generation, compounding our ability to come to grips with this evolution and leaving everyone constantly in a state of catch-up. As Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps wrote in their book Virtual Teams, “we are born into the old-age past, yet must navigate in the new-age present.”
What seems to have taken place in the last ten years is a great divide in the workplace with younger generations moving in the direction of the new-age present while segments of the older generation choose to remain in the old-age past. Unfortunately, both these directions are limiting and a bridging of this gap is required for organizations to fully realize their full potential.
In thinking that this divide is purely technological one would be correct, up to a point, as it has a lot to do with networks, virtual teaming, computer agility, and social media. Thanks to the internet, the nine-to-five office is, more often than not, a cell phone, laptop and/or tablet, with emails, text messages, and meetings in coffee shops the main forms of communication. The web has created the ability for virtual teams to spread around the globe generating businesses that, in Jack Welch’s mind, are “boundaryless” while creating entirely new and complex management challenges in a business environment where the sun never sets.
When a company the size of General Electric realizes in the late 1990s that, as Russ Baird head of their Sigma Six Training stated, “the skill of leading virtual teams is the new requirement,” we begin to understand that none of this is a passing fad. We are definitely “not in Kansas anymore”, as Dorothy stated so succinctly in The Wizard of Oz.
These changes are causing concern in the management ranks around the world as experienced managers and consultants wonder whether their skills and abilities, gained through years of experience, will be replaced by a 20 year old with a smartphone. The 30 somethings obviously have an advantage as they have been born into this age. They have the skills and understanding of the new-age present but it is becoming apparent that “the need for adult supervision is still an organizational requirement in the twenty-first century”, as Lipnack and Stamps wrote at the turn of the century.
As Robin Abrams from the Ventro Corporation described it, “you’re with a bunch of 32 to 35 year olds, bright and willing to break all the rules and ask all the right questions. But you still have to surround them with a sufficient level of experience in channel strategy, brand building, and product management while keeping the momentum going. If you had all bright 32-year-olds or all bright grey-hairs, it wouldn’t work”.
We have to remember that today’s senior managers were once the young upstarts. They had all the answers, the new ideas, and understood the emerging technology but were short on experience. Senior management at the time were needed to lead the way forward.
So, as the old French proverb reminds us, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” and we see that much of the new-age present’s younger generation have not gained the business and management experience needed to effectively run an organization, especially in the chaotic environment we presently find ourselves. And, as in earlier times, it looks like it will be the age-old past’s generation, those senior managers with the experience and innate understand of the business world, who will have the best chance of bridging the gap.
This present day leadership though cannot lead from the old-age past’s authoritarian model of giving orders but must come from the new-age present’s understanding that leadership is now horizontal and pervades every level of an organization. Senior management should understand that the old vertical model of information sent up and directives sent down to be carried out is quickly crumbling; that the need to know is now everyone’s business both inside and outside the organization; and that managers are not the source of all knowledge and wisdom as they once were.
So, contrary to current speculation and global concern, the job of senior management is not over yet but beginning anew with added challenges and responsibilities. It’s incumbent though that they step up and be, as Robin Abram’s states “ready, willing, and able to learn”, as it is only senior management who can effectively merge this new-age present’s evolving climate with the age-old past. “To blend the talent between young bright minds and the grey-hairs” as Robin Abram, a self-proclaimed grey hair is finding out, is now the mandate of all senior management no matter what their new-age present skill levels are.
Yes, there are definitely members of the older generation who have grabbed hold of this new-age present just as there are millennials who have worked hard to gain the business experience necessary to navigate today’s business climate, but this does not yet seem to be the norm. There’s room for both to partner in building and running today’s organizations, and in fact, it may be the competitive advantage that organizations should look to over the next few years.