Monday, April 06, 2009

Should you cater to younger workers?

At the recent AIIM show in Philadelphia, there was a session called "Stump the Consultant" in which audience members got to put their toughest questions to a panel of three experts (Jesse Wilkins of Access Sciences, Lisa Welchman of WelchmanPierpoint, and my esteemed colleague Alan Pelz-Sharpe of CMS Watch). There were approximately 30 questions from 80 audience members (a very high rate of participation).

One of the questions was quite interesting, and it drew an interesting response.

The question came from someone working for an organization with two sizable constituencies of highly educated domain experts. (I'm being a bit vague, deliberately.) The organization's content-management infrastructure, the questioner said, was practically nonexistent, with many users still accessing content via very old-fashioned tools. There's an urgent need to overhaul the system and put some semblance of a "real" ECM solution in place. But there are two groups of users to satisfy: Senior domain specialists (older workers) who are comfortable with the old-fashioned tools and don't want to change; and younger workers with a strong preference for modern, browser-based apps. The question is, which group do you try to please? Which group can you least afford to alienate?

If you cater to the younger group, you risk alienating your most senior people (talented, expensive, hard-to-replace experts; people you don't want to lose to the competition; people with great political capital in the organization, who can perhaps defeat an IT initiative by pushing back hard). On the other hand, if you cater to the older group, you risk alienating the younger workers; and you risk keeping obsolete systems in place far longer than you should, making future replacement that much more difficult while also impeding business objectives, etc.

Lisa Welchman gave what I thought was a poignant and insightful answer. I'll try to paraphrase: She said, in essence, that if you're wise, you'll put a new system in place that serves the needs of all, but serves the wants of the younger generation of workers. And yes, you do this even though you know it will bring pushback from the more senior workers.

Lisa explained (in a much more articulate way than I can manage here) that older workers are less likely to quit their jobs than younger workers. They may grouse and grumble over a new system, but most will stay in their jobs rather than leave.

Younger workers, on the other hand, are more mobile and more inclined to go off on their own and find another job (or start a company) when conditions become frustrating. The older workers will retire; you'll eventually lose them anyway, no matter what system you put in place (or don't put in place). But if you fail to attract and nurture a talented, motivated corps of younger workers, the future of the company is put at risk.

So you do the right thing for the business. You put in a new system. One that will (hopefully) meet your current and future business needs while also satisfying as many users as possible. And if you have to choose between satisfying senior personnel versus generation-next, again you do the right thing for the business: You go with generation-next.

Lisa's answer resonated with me. It seemed to resonate, also, with the audience of 80 or so people. From my seat near the front of the room, I turned around and surveyed the tableau of faces. The majority of people looked to be over the age of 40. Everyone seemed to get it. Everybody seemed to understand that a company's best investment is not in its IT, but in its people; and not just in its older, more experienced workers, but in its older-workers-to-be. One thing you can't do is cater to workers who want to cling to the ways of the past, no matter how senior or how influential they may be.

As it turns out, I was only able to attend one session at this year's AIIM Expo (because I was working the CMS Watch booth the rest of the time). I'm glad it was this one.