Battle of the ages

How CIOs can avoid generational clashes among their IT staff

Charleston Southern University CIO Rusty Bruns has a secret weapon to handle needy users -- Buddy Gray, a 63-year-old network manager.

Bruns' reliance on Gray, one of three workers older than 60 on Charleston Southern's 17-person IT team, is a rarity. Many CIOs are reportedly turning away from older workers in favor of 20-somethings, causing a battle of the ages in IT.

Mix of generations

"Blogs everywhere are filling, debating whether the older workers are past their prime and only the young employees have value moving forward," says Phil Murphy, principal analyst at Forrester Research. A 2006 Intelliquest Fall Business Study bears this out as employees 50 years and older accounted for less than 20% of the corporate IT professional workforce.

Murphy says older workers are seen as having out-of-date mainframe skills while younger workers have new technology smarts. He says the answer to stopping this generational conflict lies with CIOs. "This misconception is unnecessary. CIOs should not let things get to the point of war. If they do it's a failure of management," he says.

Bruns, who is in his late 40s, says he sees a lot of age discrimination in the industry but is careful to avoid it in his own organization. "We don't experience age discrimination here, because I hire based on personality first and technical fit second. This is so I know that individuals are able to coexist," he says. "While there are plenty of different ages -- 20s, 30s, 40s -- the personalities are all similar."

Bruns says it's his job to see the positives of an older worker and match those to the needs of the organization. At Charleston Southern, Gray's ability to help users resolve problems is a perfect fit for faculty members who often need more attention than other users.

The CIO understands this attention to detail might not make Gray the fastest worker on the team, but his role is critical. "The older gentlemen on the team might do 50 work orders in a week vs. the 80 to 100 that the younger worker does, but the payback we receive is worth that extra 30. I get a lot of compliments on the work that Buddy does," he says.

The good will that Gray attracts for the team through his customer service helps when it's time to rally support for a new project or during a difficult rollout.

Gray, a retired Navy missile inspector and six-year veteran of the IT team, enjoys working in a mix of age groups and is fond of the 20-somethings on his team. "It's nice to be around them and share their joy for life. They're fun, and they offer a different perspective," he says.

Gray praises their ability to learn new technologies and multitask. "They do pick up things quicker, without a doubt," he says. But he adds there can be a downside to this rapid pace. "They always have to have an answer immediately and sometimes that answer isn't correct."

Gray says he had a mentor who said something has to be tested seven times before it can be considered fixed. "The younger generation tests a solution once and considers it done," he says.

Tony Bonne, a 27-year-old member of the university's IT team, says the younger generation can be hasty. "Younger people do want a problem solved quickly so they can move on and the older people spend time and do a lot of research," he says.

Bonne, a five-year veteran of Bruns' group, says a mixture of the generations is needed to make an organization complete. "You come out of school with all this enthusiasm and no idea what's expected of you. It's nice to have people around that are experienced in life and can help you channel that energy," he says.

A melting pot

Dan Gingras, a partner at executive consulting firm Tatum in Newton, Mass., says CIOs should create an environment where there is a blending of talents among older and younger workers. He encourages a "cross-fertilization of specific skills."

"You have to look at individual skills and figure out where those match. Pairing up older and younger workers is a good approach," he says.

What the older workers bring to the table is business acumen. "The older generation can teach younger workers the business of IT. They understand that IT is a support function of the company as a whole, where younger workers are just trying to solve an immediate problem," Gingras says.

He adds that knowledge swaps can occur during brown-bag lunches where younger workers teach older workers about new technologies and older workers explain IT's relevance to the business as a whole.

The buck stops here

Bruns says the key to avoiding age discrimination is not to act as if everyone is equal, but to acknowledge generational differences. "There can be a frustration among some of the younger workers who watch the older workers work differently. But if management does not recognize the value and is not able to explain or defend the differences then [that's when] the cohesive team splinters and you get a generational clash."

Gittlen is a freelance technology editor in Northboro, Mass. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net.

Learn more about this topic

10 tech-management tips

01/11/07

Initiative addresses aging workforce

03/07/06

Phased retirement benefits businesses

09/12/06

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Take IDG’s 2020 IT Salary Survey: You’ll provide important data and have a chance to win $500.