Knowmads: the battle of generations

Generational differences in the workplace are debated. On the one hand you have the people who believe there are differences and that every organization should be responsive to those differences. Especially the millennials are seen as a different breed, for instance I read the book by

Jamie Notter: When millennials take over. On the other hand there are those who think it is a myth that generations would adhere to other values, see eg. Cut the crap: the make up nonsense about generations at work.  Stassen, Anseel en Levecque have analyzed several studies. They state that the research structure of most studies is not capable of making a valid verdict. An important methodological problem is the distinction between the effects of three different factors: age, period and generation. Either way: it’s hard to proof. 

The battle of the knowmads

I attended a festival in the north of the Netherlands called Beleef de zandbak. It offered me the opportunity to do an experiment: the battle of generations. My own curiosity is with different uses of technology in the workplace: I see that there are differences, but somehow people are sensitive to generalizations. What differences? I’m pretty fast online, but I see that youngsters are much faster. On the other hand I did sessions for students, but very few students knew what social bookmarking was. That’s why I was eager to organize an experiment with practical knowledge assignments to see whether different generations would tackle the assignments differently. The assignments were arranged in such a way that there was a winner for each question. I had about 18 people in my workshop and used the following generations to group them:

  • Babyboomers: born between 1940-1955
  • Generation X: 1956 en 1970
  • Generation Y: 1971 en 1990
  • Millennials born after 1990
Because not all generations were represented I ended up with three groups. In each group one person was appointed as observer. 
  • Generatie X  – old (1956-1963)
  • Generatie X –  young (1964-1970)
  • Generatie Y and one millennial (after 1971)
Generation Y and millennial
Generation X 1956-1963

The winner(s)

The winner was … generation Y (with one millennial). Generation X-old was occupying the second place. I must say: observing from a distance I saw little differences between the three groups. . However, the observations of the researchers and the teams showed quite some differences; with very interesting conclusions!

Striking observations

  • The two ‘older’ groups were smarter in using online media. All groups used online media to find answers to a network assignment (collect responses to a statement). However, the younger generation used only Twitter and then especially to search. The other groups also used Facebook and Whatsapp. My personal observation is that nobody thought of starting a poll, which would be my way to collect responses online. In the exchange everyone agreed that if Y’s uses their online networks they will probably get faster responses. 
  • All groups also used offline networks in the same way by sending group members out to collect answers face-to-face. No difference.
  • Generation X had more ready knowledge within the group. Generation X-old won at the first question because they simply know all the answers by heart. Googling could not beat that. Furthermore, the observers of X knew the answers but were not allowed to participate in responding. 
  • Generation Y was faster. This lead them to the victory at the third question. According to the observer, “they were enormously fast in shifting from team communication to individual google searches and back to team collaboration“. However, in two cases, the speed lead them to the wrong answer. In one case, they searched for NPO2 instead of NVO2. In another question they had an answer which was not logical at all. Critical thinking would have helped to know this.
  • Both generation X groups were very critical of questions and answers, really thought about it, and sometimes criticized the questions. Generation Y was fast and less thought-full. A trade-off between speed and critical thinking?
  • Generation Y collaborated very smoothly, much better than generation X-young. The discussion revealed that not everyone in the room had learned to work together during their education, and this translates into current practices. Generation X-young seemed to have a more solistic approach. But this depends on your type of education, for instance I have worked half of my university time in Wageningen in groups. 

Conclusions 

This is not a groundbreaking research, but a nice experiment. I draw three key conclusions.

  1. A first conclusion is that both generations show their own strengths in this experiment. Generation X has logically more knowledge of the top of their heads, which can be very useful. In addition, they think critically about questions and answers. Generation Y googlet faster and can switch quickly, but sometimes this is at the expense of critical reflection and may therefore put them on the wrong track. Ultimately, it is good to work together among generations to take advantage of everybody’s qualities. Don’t be shy to discuss them. 
  2. A second conclusion is that Generation Y is by definition not that good in leveraging online networks and using online tools. That could be a pitfall if you think they are good because of their presence on social media. Basic collaborative skills are taught during your education, and most millennials were not taught to leverage online networks.
  3. A third conclusion is that there are equally differences within generations (contribution Mirjam Neelen: as a result so you can never generalize the conclusions and apply them to individuals. 

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