With competition for talent on the rise, developing a corporate culture of employee commitment has become a foundational imperative for most organizations. Creating and maintaining a high-performing workforce is at the core of nearly every business strategy, and the rewards for doing it right are monumental: increasing employee satisfaction, reducing turnover, optimizing productivity and positioning the organization for growth.
The stakes are even higher for organizations that face immediate challenges such as a merger or acquisition, volatile market conditions, new competitive threats or any serious need to influence internal change in response to external forces. Economic trends are making these extraordinary pressures much more common.
There’s another element compounding the pressure and raising the stakes on employee commitment: Never before has there been such a diversity of generations in the workforce. Four distinct, age-based cohorts coexist in the workplace. Each has different values, needs and motivators, which can make it challenging to understand from where they’re coming. And it is only going to get more challenging as we move toward what is predicted to be a major labor shortage.
Entry-level hiring is expected to surge in 2007 by more than 17 percent, the fourth consecutive double-digit increase, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And this is only the beginning — by 2010, as baby boomers’ exodus from the workforce accelerates, census data suggest two employees will be leaving for every new hire entering, and new college graduates will be a precious commodity. This churn is expected to dramatically alter the tenor of workplace culture and bring about major shifts in organizational dynamics, both of which ultimately affect the bottom line.
Who’s in Your Workforce?
Right now, Gen Xers and Nexters, who are 18 to 41 years old, make up about 45 percent of the workforce. Together, these two generations equal the baby boomers, who represent another 45 percent of the workforce. Veterans make up the final 10 percent, give or take. Although there is danger in generalizing and oversimplifying, a quick review of each group’s typical traits reveals a glimpse of what individuals in each cohort might be looking for from an organization.
Born before World War II, their values were shaped by the Great Depression, the New Deal, WWII and the Korean War. As a result of these experiences, their values emphasize civic pride, loyalty, respect for authority, dedication, sacrifice, conformity, honor and discipline.
This is a generation that is driven by duty before pleasure. In the workforce, they are stable, loyal and hardworking, probably staying with the company for 30 to 35 years. They view work as a privilege and have respect for the institutions and leaders for whom they work because they believe work and sacrifice pay off over the long term. Veterans seek a directive leadership style: clearly defined goals, directions and measurements designated by the leader.
Baby Boomers (1945–1963)
Raised in an era of extreme optimism, opportunity and progress, their values were shaped by landing on the moon, the Peace Corps, the Vietnam War, Woodstock and the Civil Rights Movement. As a group, they’ve always been determined to do better than their parents and provide their children with everything their hearts desire. Many are the first in their families to go to college. Most can be counted on to go the extra mile on the job. Boomers — who have the distinction of having invented the 60-hour workweek — achieve their identity through the work they perform.
There are 74 million boomers, and they set every trend in the country. Markets look at what drives them, where they are headed and how they spend their money. But the reality is having a somewhat sobering effect on their outlook as they find themselves at the threshold of retirement. Many are realizing they will not be able to continue to live the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.
The Xers came of age during the economic wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Sandwiched between the ubiquitous baby boomers and the privileged Nexters, they have been related to middle children, struggling to make their mark. Their values were shaped by Watergate, the Challenger disaster, terrorism and computers. Often left to fend for themselves by working parents, they were plugged in for much of their childhoods — surfing the Web, playing video games, watching MTV. In the process, they developed a chronic need for stimulation and instant gratification.
They also developed a very casual relationship with authority. In the work environment, Xers have a huge distaste for micromanagement. They want to be told what is expected of them, provided with appropriate feedback and empowered to get the job done. Discouraged and disheartened when they saw their parents being laid off from jobs, they view work as simply a job. They want to work on their terms and have balance in their lives so for them, the upshot is flexibility.
Nexters (1980– 2000)
Nexters were raised in a high-tech world that shaped their entire value system. Truly global citizens, many speak numerous languages and are well-traveled. Unlike the latchkey kids of the ’70s, many of these recent graduates have grown up in households with hyper-involved parents and overscheduled lives. And they are used to being both seen and heard.
What does this mean within the context of the workforce? They speak out. If they don’t like something, or they don’t think something is being done correctly, they will walk right into the CEO’s office and tell him. Although viewed by many in the workforce as lacking a strong work ethic and having an unjustified sense of entitlement, they have a very positive, can-do attitude about getting the job done well and efficiently. Their plan is to make things happen, so they can move on to doing the things they really enjoy.
Creating a Culture of Commitment
With this broad field of individuals populating the corporate world, it becomes challenging to describe the “typical” workforce, let alone manage and maximize its talent assets toward higher productivity and profits. Recruiting is the first hurdle. But over the long haul, retention is the highest hurdle by far. Learning and development can provide the competitive boost that allows organizations to clear these hurdles in the race for talent and, ultimately, win employee loyalty and commitment.
Responsibility for building a culture of commitment is shared by everyone with a stake in the enterprise’s success. But a big part of the burden for making it happen naturally falls on the chief learning officer and the learning organization. Despite the generational differences within the history-making workforce of 2007, there is common ground, and it falls in the CLO’s bucket.
Recent studies show across the board and across the generations, 85 percent of the workforce wants to be given the means and the motivation to continually improve and grow. That’s not all that new, but there is one big difference today: If employees are not learning and growing, they are going someplace else.
The current workforce — particularly the younger members just beginning to chart their careers — will move on quickly if they are not being challenged, valued and developed.
In this context, the CLO must focus on applying the lessons of employee engagement to the design and delivery of every learning and development initiative across the enterprise. Success in this regard requires understanding what employees need for development, as well as the peripheral factors that color their perception of and satisfaction with the learning experience and influence its eventual effectiveness. And there are plenty of variables when you look at the makeup of today’s multigenerational workforce.
So, what’s a CLO to do? First, build and promote a learning environment that is conducive to attracting and retaining talent from a cross-section of individuals. Second, establish a strategic vision for motivating, coaching and developing diverse employees. Third, create learning and development experiences that engage and empower each learner and provide skills that can be used immediately toward the achievement of shared business objectives.
Embedding Engagement Within Education
A key competence for CLOs is recognizing the necessity and value of using the right learning initiatives at the right time in the right measure to produce the desired business results. With a multigenerational workforce, this can be especially critical to success.
Just as the generational cohorts now coexisting in the workplace have altered organizational structure and culture, the goals and expectations for enterprise education have changed quite dramatically. One major change is the growing emphasis on designing effective learning environments.
There is a strong body of evidence that suggests learners use their knowledge to construct knowledge and that what they know and believe at the moment affects how they interpret new information. Effective learning environments make the connection between what learners bring to the setting — knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs — and what needs to be learned to perform their current tasks and achieve desired business outcomes.
Instructional design and delivery also come into play. A fundamental tenet of modern learning theory is that different kinds of learning goals require different approaches to instruction. New goals for education require changes in opportunities to learn and access to content. How have new technologies — most of which are hard-wired into the younger generations of workers — changed the corporate learning and development experience?
Adding networked digital media to the mix (the entire sum of recorded human knowledge available on your desktop at the touch of a button) means learning organizations now have far greater potential variation than was previously imaginable, let alone possible. And with every advance in delivery methods and technology, they also have the ability to factor in the individual needs of learners, along with the scope of knowledge that must be shared, the context in which learning takes place and the realities of budgets and time frames.
Theory and technology come together when learning leaders use them to embed employee engagement within the educational experience itself. How? By designing, developing and deploying learning and development programs that are truly aligned with both the needs of the learner and the goals of the organization.
Using Learning to Lead Productivity
It’s becoming clear increased productivity and profitability will be out of reach for organizations that don’t value their workforce and include individual development as a linchpin of their strategic positioning. Opportunities to learn, grow and make a difference must exist at all levels of the organization. It’s absolutely critical to attract the talent needed for the future and preventing them from prematurely heading for the exits.
There never has been a better time for chief learning officers to demonstrate the power of enterprise education for capturing the full potential that is out there, but it will require a thoughtful, purposeful, even systematic approach to analyzing what makes the generations tick and crafting a corporate learning and development strategy that meets their needs and motivates performance.
The looming labor shortage means organizations will have to be particularly savvy to attract and develop the best talent from every generation. Smart CLOs will benefit by remembering it takes a very diverse team to achieve unsurpassed success.
Dianne Durkin is president and founder of Loyalty Factor, a training and management consulting firm based in Portsmouth, N.H. Durkin is the author of “The Loyalty Advantage” and is an adjunct professor at Penn State University’s Executive Management Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.