How can managers effectively harness the human capital they bring to enhance operational effectiveness? Reply

Gerard McGurk final cropped


Guest blogger: Gerard McGurk, Open University Business School MBA Alumnus and member of our Alumni Council,
Consular Regional Director – Middle East & North Africa at Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The workplace in 2015 is facing a unique opportunity (not challenge) in so far as it will have four generations (or waves) of employees (listed below). In 2015 what does this mean for employers of multi-generationals (whichever label they are given) in terms of recruitment, retention and motivation? How can managers effectively harness the human capital they bring to enhance operational effectiveness?

As global managers, we need to be careful about how we talk about multi-generational working. Most academic literature focuses on definitions of multi-generational employees from a North American or European perspective. It is a mistake to look to apply these to other regions in the world: the drivers and broader conditions (political and socio-economic) vary from country to country. The cultural dimension to multi-generational working therefore needs to be understood – both from a management and leadership perspective.

Traditionalists
: born before 1945. Value hard work. Dislike for conflict and detailed orientated.

Baby Boomers: born between 1946-1964. Adaptive, goal-orientated with positive attitude.

Generation X: born late 1960’s – 1970’s. Independent, adaptable, resilient and family-orientated.

Millennials (Gen Y) – born between 1980’s and 1990’s. Creative, committed and loyal, accept diversity easily.

The continued existence of multi-generational working as both a concept and also a recurring theme for business and academic discussion demonstrates the extent to which there is no agreed approach. Thankfully these broad, sweeping descriptors don’t fully describe the wide range of experiences or knowledge that employees possess. Nor do I believe that these simplistic definitions act as the basis for managing across generations.

I should declare a strong affinity for the work of Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap and their 2005 article on “Deep Smarts” – the “stuff the produces that mysterious quality – good judgment”. Leonard and Swap argue that experience is the reason that deeply knowledgeable individuals make swift, smart decisions. In this context, the connection with the developmental principle of “70-20-10”, with the 70 representing the informal, on-the-job, experienced-based and practice, is relevant and needs to be appreciated more in terms of understanding how certain generations of employees integrate pattern based learning into their performance.

If we accept the proposition put forward by Nonaka and Takeuchi that knowledge and intellectual capital act as a company’s primary source of production and value, suggesting experience is a factor in value production, why is there still a level of tension between managing such pivotal contributors of organisational value? Why is there still a tendency to dwell on the differences between Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers rather than focus on common goals?
In my experience of working in a cross-cultural, multi-linguistic environment, there is little to be gained from the “divide and conquer” approach. No one size fits all – the world we live in is complex and diverse and management solutions cannot be framed to capture all possible instances in all locations. Broad principles may be applicable but the policy prescriptions need to be context specific.

Managing a multi-generational workplace undoubtedly has its challenges. However primary responsibility for turning this generational diversity into opportunity rests with managers first and foremost. It is critical that they get close to their employees – whatever their age – and understand what drives them. A tailored approach is likely to be more successful as it will have their personal motivation at the heart of the solution and will address their personal goals and needs.

Building collaborative partnerships is important. Creating blended teams enables mixed experience to be shared across age differences and support a common sense of purpose. Teams comprise of individuals working towards a shared goal. It is the skill-set, knowledge, commitment and dedication to that common goal that are key. Job shadowing, mentoring and coaching are also valid and support methods of developing cross-generational meaning and shared experiences – all with the purpose of adding value, be it organisational, personal or professional.

Inspire People to Dissolve Diversity Reply

John BrookerGuest blogger: John Brooker, Open University Business School MBA Alumnus, Managing Director of Yes! And. John is a former Senior Vice President of Visa, author of ‘Innovate to Learn, Don’t Learn to Innovate’ and Board Member of the Association for the Quality Development of Solution Focused Consulting and Training.

This article suggests that people are not diverse because of their age, their race, their sex or any other attribute. They are diverse because of mental “walls”. It suggests that successful leaders can dissolve diversity and help people to achieve greater things by facilitating people to interact, co-design their future, take small steps and notice signs of progress.

“I never feel age…If you have creative work, you don’t have age or time.”
Louise Nevelson
(American sculptress, at 80 years of age)

Last year, I facilitated a group of young people in an innovation workshop in the Middle East. They felt that older, more senior managers rejected many of their ideas because the senior managers did not listen, were too set in their ways or were risk averse; or all three. Senior managers have told me that when they reject ideas from younger people it is often because they are poorly thought through, solve the wrong problem or are sold badly, due to inexperience.

There seems to be diversity of opinion between the age groups when it comes to innovation and many other topics in organisations, yet I doubt that it stems from age. I have met younger managers who did not listen, were set in their ways or were risk averse. A glance at the news proves that the young do not have a monopoly on poor thinking, solving the wrong problem and selling ideas badly.

If not age, what is the problem? I believe these type of issues arise because people work in a mental “room”, with “walls” they build from:

  • Assumptions that may be unwarranted
  • Egos (small, medium and large)
  • Prejudices
  • Fixed mind-sets.

Are these “walls” age related? I think not. Consider this. My daughter, 19, mentioned that at work in the office of a multi-national company, before university, she sometimes felt that she could not address people in an equal way because she was younger than them, “but that’s probably due to my mind-set.” I celebrate the sixth anniversary of “birthdays with a zero” this year; when I enter a room full of strangers of whatever age and I have no role (e.g. as a host), I feel trepidation. It’s not my age; rather, it’s my mind-set.

You could spend much time trying to understand and change the different assumptions, egos, prejudices and mind-set of any diverse group. I doubt you will move forward very quickly. Rather, I believe that successful leaders in organisations metaphorically “dissolve” these metaphorical walls. To do this, they engineer and stimulate interaction between diverse people, whether that diversity is age, race, gender or even job roles.

Successful leaders help diverse people to co-design a preferred future, where they work together successfully and achieve much. They encourage them to avoid blame, to seek what works well between them now and to focus on their positive differences and relative strengths, not weaknesses.

To create progress towards this co-designed future, they inspire people to take small steps and notice what changes. When people achieve progress, they inspire themselves and others to take more steps, notice more change, create yet more progress, in a virtuous circle.

When they are truly successful, leaders notice that people in their organisation no longer talk about, worry about or even celebrate diversity. Why? Because those very diverse people no longer notice it. May it happen to you.

Challenges of age diversity at work 1

Katrina Pritchard (2)
Guest blogger: Dr Katrina Pritchard, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Studies at The Open University Business School. Dr Pritchard will be facilitating our forthcoming Business Perspectives masterclass in London in February.

Hardly a day goes by without the UK press highlighting issues associated with the changing age demographics of the UK population. My Open University colleague, Rebecca Whiting and I, are never short of materials to comment on in our daily blogs about Age at Work. For example, recently we have considered the announcement of ‘older worker champions’ at UK Job Centre’s to help the over-50’s develop ‘digital skills’, asking if this might perpetuate a stereotype of the older worker as less-IT proficient.

Despite having been on the media radar for the last few years, the challenges of age diversity at work are however poorly understood. Academic research has traditionally treated age as just a number. However ‘age’ is a significantly more complex than a chronological marker or membership of an alphabetically denoted generational category might suggest. For example, it is it is recognised that chronological age is at best a proxy measure (rather than a causal variable) for issues influencing work-related outcomes.

Moreover despite many consultancy-led reports highlighting challenges, there are few fora for managers to share practical experiences. Employers need to consider their legal obligations (avoiding age discrimination, for example), understand the potential implications of an age diverse workforce and also to consider how age-related stereotypes might present challenges to the achievement of organisational goals. Age related issues are often presented as a competition, between older and younger generations. Characteristics which are ascribed to generations are said to cause tensions at work, tensions which managers and leaders in age-diverse organisations need to address.

In this respect our Business Perspectives event provides a great opportunity to explore issues related to age diversity with insights from senior figures in the legal, automotive and health sectors. We are also delighted to welcome Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD, whose mission is ‘Championing better work and working lives’. Alongside academic perspectives, our sessions will explore issues related to both younger and older working lives providing the much need opportunity to share insights and practical experiences with organisations for which age diversity is critical business issue.

Leading and managing in age diverse organisations Reply

Join our latest Business Perspectives masterclass in London on Thursday 12 February 2015 and engage in the debate about issues of age and age diversity in the workplace.  Leading the event is Dr Katrina Pritchard, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Studies at The Open University Business School (OUBS).  She has a long standing interest in the issues faced by both older and younger workers, and how organisations and leaders can work to give these equal attention in the workplace.  Along with her colleague, Dr Rebecca Whiting, she writes the Age at Work blog and their research has recently featured in a Special Issue of the highly regarded academic journal Organization Studies.

BOOK NOW

We’ll be exploring issues related to age diversity from the perspective of those leading and managing contemporary organisations from the legal, automotive and health sectors.

Speakers include:

  • Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD – insights and perspectives from the organisation whose mission is ‘Championing better work and working lives’
  • Martin Hall, HR Manager at BMW – hear Martin’s extensive experience of managing a workforce spanning the full age spectrum
  • James Davies, Joint Head of Employment, Lewis Silkin LLP – offering a legal perspective on managing in age diverse organisations
  • Paul Deemer, Head of Equality, Diversity and Human Rights, NHS Employers – Age in the NHS: the Working Longer Review

Further information on all our speakers and details on how to register are available on our website.

“It’s the culture, stupid!” 3

Guest blogger:
David MayleDavid Mayle, Lecturer in Management and a member of  The Open University’s Centre for Human Resource and Change Management.

Talking of quotes, I’ve always been fond of Nick Negroponte (he of MIT Media Lab fame) and his

“The best way to guarantee a steady stream of new ideas is to make sure that each person in your organization is as different as possible from the others. Under these conditions, and only these conditions, will people maintain varied perspectives and demonstrate their knowledge in different ways.”

Trouble is, such diversity is a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for innovation capability; that people are different is not enough – they’ve got to be allowed to think and behave differently too.

Which brings us to culture. I’m not going to dwell on definitions, at least in part because all too often we believe – erroneously – that if we can pin a label on something, it helps us to understand it. If only.[1] Culture is deep; culture is slippery; culture is unmanageable; all of the usual claims are true, partial, and largely unhelpful.

In very crude terms, culture may indeed be – at a quite deep level – the way the place ‘works’, but for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to tweak that a little, into ‘… so what does one have to do to get on around here?’ My motives should become clear a little later.

If culture is such an elusive concept, how do cultures emerge in the first place? In the beginning, an organisation has purpose but generally few people; if the initial ideas prove successful, it usually grows. This means a balance between two processes: recruitment (= who comes on board) and retention (= who stays).

Let’s take recruitment first. I often tell my students that there are two rites of passage en route to becoming a good manager. The first is to stop recruiting in your own image[2]; most of us eventually achieve this. The second is to start recruiting people who disagree with you[3]. This is much more difficult and sadly many don’t get that far, notwithstanding its increased popularity after both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama started recycling some of Abraham Lincoln’s political philosophy. Given these two rules, it should be quite clear that recruitment, who does it and against what criteria (explicit or otherwise), is a crucial lever on culture.

Then there’s retention; if folk find the environment conducive they’ll probably stay, if not they’re more likely to leave (going back to the quote at the start, do they feel they’re allowed to be different or do they feel pressure to conform?). I will also argue that retention is intimately tied up with the reward system in place, which needs to be three things: it needs to be perceived as being fair, it needs to be congruent with the organisation’s aims[4], and it needs to at least allow (or even actively encourage) people to be different. People who are rewarded by the organisation are the role models, to be emulated by all those others who want to ‘get on’. And if only one sort of behaviour gets rewarded, bang goes your diversity.

Some of us believe passionately in the power of innovation; problem is, if culture is so vital, and recruitment and retention/reward are key, who’s got their hands on the levers?


[1]    OK, if you insist on definitions, the seminal article is probably Schein (1990) ‘Organizational Culture’, American Psychologist (February)

[2]    If you doubt it, go back to your Belbin, or maybe some Myers-Briggs, or maybe just look again at the Negroponte quote.

[3]    I cite John Cleese in a famous video where he quotes Sam Goldwyn: “I don’t want any Yes Men in this organisation, I want people to speak their mind. Even if it does cost them their job!”

[4]    The classic text is Steven Kerr (1975), ‘On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B’, Academy of Management Journal