Brilliance Lab

With five generations active in the current workforce, we need to review how leaders can support the transfer of knowledge within a multi-generational workforce. I begin by defining the concept of a multi-generational workforce, the importance of knowledge sharing and the types of knowledge within an organisation. I examine the perceptions, motivations, and drivers of each of the five generations that make up the modern workforce that includes Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z.

I continue by examining the different learning approaches recommended for older and younger workers before concluding that leaders can support the transfer of knowledge by focusing on the similarities, rather than the differences, between generations. By combining socialisation techniques with an experiential learning model, we are able to cultivate desired organisational behaviour and reduce the factors that inhibit the successful transfer or knowledge within a multigeneration workforce.

The term multi-generational refers to a family or society of or relating to several generations. Leaders currently face the unprecedented possibility of managing, aligning, and developing the needs of up to five generations within a singular organisation. Although there are some who oppose the concept that the time people are born creates differences, for the purpose of this paper I define generations as having collective differences as categorised by their age and date of birth.

I define Traditionalists as workers who are 76 years and older, Baby Boomers include workers who fall between the ages of 57 and 75 years old, Generation X are between 38 and 56 years old, Generation Y (or Millennials) are between the ages of 26 and 37 years while the newest generation to enter the workforce, Generation Z, make up the workers aged 25 years and younger.

A multi-generational workforce requires a holistic Human Resource Management (HRM) strategy to ensure the inclusion of employees with differing culture, age, gender, race and religious backgrounds implemented to achieve the organisations competitive advantage. Learning and development, which includes the transfer of knowledge, forms a component of human resource development. I will be focusing on how leaders can design learning and development interventions with a focus on the transfer of knowledge within a multi-generational workforce.

The transfer of knowledge falls under the category of Knowledge Management (KM), which is a function of learning and development. KM includes how knowledge is created, how it is codified and organised, and how knowledge is accessed and transferred when needed. The sharing of knowledge is essential to organisations in achieving and improving their competitive advantage as it provides an efficient and effective path for innovation, problem solving and continual improvement. Knowledge should be considered as three categories: explicit, tacit, and experiential.

Explicit knowledge is created through the documentation of task-oriented experiences including objectives of the organisation and techniques or processes. It includes knowledge that is easy to describe, interpret and codify such as operating manuals, scientific formulas, and patents. The transfer of explicit knowledge is possible by storing the codified knowledge in easily accessible databases that employees can search, filter, and find relevant information when needed. One issue with relying on knowledge transfer to occur through codified documents is a lack of contextual and situational awareness. Even though workers can access and interpret the information, they have no insight as to why it works, when it works and when it does not work.

Tacit knowledge is gained through experience, observation or imitation and is difficult to codify. While explicit knowledge might be ‘what’ we do, tacit knowledge is better viewed as ‘how’ we do things. The behaviours, contextual awareness, and style of how we approach work is captured within tacit knowledge. As tacit knowledge is gained through experience or observation, it cannot be codified and requires either practical experience or the observation of somebody who has had practical experience. The use of planned, immersive, and informal targeted socialisation tactics such as storytelling, celebrations and an emphasis on expected behaviour can provide a good foundation for the transfer of tacit knowledge.

Young workers improvising in their roles while undertaking guided experimentation and guided problem solving is useful in the transfer of tacit knowledge. These same tactics are useful in sharing experiential knowledge, as experiential knowledge is created through a contextual and overarching understanding of the impact decisions have on the organisation and the environment it belongs to. If explicit knowledge is the ‘what’ and tacit knowledge is the ‘how’, experiential knowledge would be the ‘why’.

For knowledge sharing to be successful in any organisation it requires socialisation and inputs from both experienced and new workers, regardless of generation. Some of the difficulties that this presents include the experienced worker not being cognisant of which knowledge is important to share, not being skilled in how to articulate and communicate the knowledge they have or not being willing to share knowledge as they may perceive it as important for their own job security or power within the organisation.

Within a multi-generational workforce, successful learning interventions are further inhibited by the perception each generation has of the other. Millennials believe Baby Boomers and Traditionalists work only for money and are just waiting to retire. Generation X thinks Millennials care more about their personal life than they do about work. Baby Boomers perceive the younger generations to care only about money without regard for the meaning of the work they do while Traditionalists think younger generations do not work as hard, nor do they care about the work, as much as they do. In a multi-generational workforce where success is reliant on the socialisation of workers from different generations any support provided by leaders must also consider the additional difficulty created by the different motivations and perception each generation holds.

Although motivation does not necessarily decline with age, to fully understand the implications of designing and implementing a learning and development system within a multi-generational workforce, we need to consider the different drivers each of the generational cohorts have when it comes to engaging in work. The difference in what drives generations is crafted by the events and attitudes of the time, shaping the culture of the generation.

The influences of work motivation include social pressure, competition, the individuals own habits and incentives offered by the organisation. Zwick goes on to state that incentives, with mention of low financial incentives for older workers, may contribute to a lack of motivation for older workers to engage in learning interventions. However, this fails to highlight the importance of satisfying intrinsic needs and what drives each generation.

While Traditionalists make up the smallest percentage of the workforce, they are seen to be loyal employees committed to the organisation. Traditionalists look for jobs that are both challenging and flexible, while also accommodating their own personal ethics. Baby Boomers are the largest generation, associated with being hard determined workers who lead with a strong vision. They look for roles with clear communication and independence that are aligned to their own personal goals and allow them to help others accomplish their goals.

Generation X, or Xers, are technically proficient in their craft and are self-sufficient. They believe an ideal job is one with a great work-life balance that allows them to achieve individual goals while staying independent and innovative.  Following Xers are Millennials, or Generation Y. They are known for their adoption of technology, autonomy and constantly working on multiple tasks. They perceive a meaningful job as one that supports personal happiness, has nice co-workers, and is relaxed. The fifth generation to enter the modern workforce is Generation Z, or Gen-Z. Gen-Z rely on versatility and are completely comfortable when it comes to integrating tech into their day to day lives.

Understanding the drivers of generational behaviour is important as the transfer of knowledge within an organisation is dependent on cultivating effective organisational behaviour that includes employees being competent in making decisions as they pertain to their level of authority. Without these core functions, competitive advantage will not be obtained. For the transfer of knowledge to be effective within an organisation, leaders must implement interventions that engage the performance drivers of each generation.

Programs designed for older workers will have a better chance of success if they focus on developing skills that require fluid intelligence, rather than crystallised intelligence, as it takes longer for older workers to be able to learn and execute skills with ease that require crystallised intelligence. While crystallised intelligence focuses on facts, vocabulary and comprehension, fluid intelligence relies on processing new information, memory and abstract reasoning. A focus on active learning methods should be used as they have less demand on cognitive abilities. Therefore, the most common method of training and development for older employees should occur in the form on informal or unplanned learning.

This is in stark contrast to recommendations given for the learning support of Millennials which suggests a focus on deliberate practice using strong communication and backed by empirical data reminiscent of Kolb’s experiential learning model. It is argued that this will allow Millennials to gain key experiences making critical decisions in a virtual environment without needing to experience the problems in a live setting. This is particularly useful to combat a phenomenon labelled the “brain drain” which has been observed in younger generations when they are required to make critical decisions with limited decision-making experience in the appropriate environment.

One common approach to successful knowledge transfer, regardless of generation, is through experiential learning interventions as it satisfies the learning requirements of both old and young workers by providing active learning methods and decision making within a virtual environment, with organisational knowledge increasing by those in leadership roles as they continue to learn through their experiences. Once this knowledge is transferred to younger workers, it allows firms to continue to innovate.

However, while it is known that younger works have limited practical experience, they are not given roles that allow for them to make decisions and gain the practical experience needed to step into leadership roles. This can be overcome through experiential learning as can be seen in Kolb’s learning cycle model in which he proposes that learning occurs by an individual moving through the phases of concrete experience, observational reflection, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation. This same approach includes active learning methods including case studies, discussions, problem solving and role playing suggested for older workers.

By applying this to the transfer of knowledge within a multi-generational workforce leaders must ensure older workers and younger workers are both included in each phase of the learning cycle to effectively allow the transfer of explicit, tacit and experiential knowledge with a clear understanding of contextual and environmental factors. This approach fulfills the need for a solution based on the socialisation of workers while also accounting for the different motivation and perception of each generation.

Leaders can support the transfer of knowledge within a multi-generational workforce by providing an experiential learning model that focuses on the similar needs shared by the generations. By providing an efficient path to innovate, solve problems and continually improve this allows an organisation to effectively transfer knowledge and achieve their competitive advantage. Although tacit and experiential knowledge is only gained through experience, imitation and observation, explicit knowledge still requires input from experienced workers to provide contextual and situational awareness to correctly interpret codified knowledge.

By using socialisation techniques that requires input from both older and younger workers, leaders can support the transfer of knowledge within a multi-generational workforce regardless of the categorisation of the knowledge type or generation. This method can also decrease the misconceptions each generation holds for the other, reducing the tension and conflicts that inhibit the effectiveness of learning interactions within a multi-generational workforce.

An experiential learning approach also reduces the responsibility of the experienced worker to be aware of what they should be teaching by allowing them to be reactive to the learner, while providing a structure to effectively articulate and communicate the transfer of knowledge. For the inexperienced worker, it provides practical experience in decision making within the correct contextual environment. The result is an iterative process that cultivates the organisational behaviour required to effectively transfer knowledge and achieve an organisations competitive advantage.