Bridging IT’s growing generation gap

Deft management skills and a lot of empathy are required to balance the priorities and expectations of millennials, baby boomers and the Gen X-ers stuck between them.

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Do millennials make up a substantial portion of your IT staff? If not, they will soon. Within a few years, millennials — roughly defined as people born after 1981 — will comprise the biggest demographic in the country, overtaking the baby boomers, who are today's most populous generation. By 2020, one-third of U.S. adults will be millennials, according to researchers at the University of Southern California. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that they will also account for more than 50% of the workforce by that time.

Statistics like those matter because today's enterprises are facing unprecedented pressures that will force them to take this age group seriously, adapt to its needs and ultimately re-create the workplace as something today's employees — especially those baby boomers — may find unrecognizable.

The challenge for IT leaders is to manage those changes and balance differing priorities and expectations from the three age groups working in IT — millennials, baby boomers and the Generation X cohort stuck between them. It will require deft management skills, a lot of empathy and the ability to drive needed changes to keep organizations competitive in a fast-moving world.

Becoming a digital organization

The push to accommodate millennials begins with the much-discussed need for companies to embrace "digital transformation" or become "digital organizations." IT experts may differ on exactly what that means, but there's widespread agreement about whom it applies to. "When it comes to the new skills required to accelerate digital transformation, a lot of existing staff who are baby boomers and Gen X-ers have legacy skills and need to be reskilled," says Lily Mok, an analyst at Gartner. "You need to bring in young blood, and that can create culture shock."

Thus, companies that want to commit to becoming digital organizations are sometimes promoting younger people to higher positions than has been the norm in the past. Case in point: ERP giant SAP, which named 31-year-old Thomas Saueressig as its CIO in April. Saueressig is the youngest person to be CIO of a Forbes Global 2000 company, and one of the youngest CIOs of a company whose shares are included in Germany's DAX stock index.

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