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Knowledge Management Across the Generations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Larisa Owen
September 14, 2020

A critical role for senior management is distilling the lessons they have learned and the obstacles they overcame along the way. But how those lessons are communicated is a major challenge. In an age characterized by quick bites of information conveyed through social media, the internet and podcasts, relying on conventional staff development or lengthy memos to staff is unlikely to get the task accomplished.

Millennials and Generation Z will soon make up a larger segment of the entire workforce. These employees are always connected and they want more information—but they want it in a format that most fits their learning styles and their lifestyles. They may seem able to text faster than the speed of light, but they still crave the short-form emotional engagement that comes through the kind of communication they know best.

To oversimplify the issue, a common scenario is older employees writing a memo and sending it out with the expectation that staff will read it and thoroughly digest its content. Younger employees may believe that they can adequately digest information in (pre-COVID) conversations in the break room, over lunch or in brief e-mails.

So how do we communicate the knowledge of senior employees in a form that is understandable and interests staff? Two key changes are needed: the first emphasizes different forms of training and the second focuses on a wider dialogue within the organization that is question-driven, rather than assuming that giving out answers is how knowledge is best communicated.

It starts with changing the old outdated communication approach. Senior leaders need to accept an obligation to help their employees grow and get them excited about potential new information. Knowledge that is important across the organization needs to be communicated in more than one-shot methods. When dealing with subjects like financing collaborative innovations or achieving greater inclusion and equity, multiple, briefer sessions may have more impact than a major written product or a single lengthy training session. Regular training with mini-sessions can build a foundation for employees’ expanded understanding of these larger concepts—and may supply some excitement about what’s coming next.

Just as important is incorporating the ability to have employees feel confident about asking questions and challenging concepts to further their development. This is not as easy as it sounds. Senior leadership may think they are approachable but because they are older and more senior, they may seem intimidating to some staff and “old-school” to others. Some employees may choose to stay uninformed on key concepts rather than risk asking a question that may result in feeling isolated. But in a healthy organization, staff are appropriately promoted based on the quality of their questions, rather than their attempt to show that they have all the answers.

A peculiar tendency that needs to be addressed in cross-generational knowledge management is the sometimes ahistorical perspective of younger staff. An innovation that was tried decades ago, whether it was successful or not, is sometimes viewed by younger staff as ancient history—or may be totally unknown. The thoughtless slogan, for example, that, “We fought a war on poverty in the 1960s and poverty won,” is a reminder of how little the political and social context of that era is understood as it affects today’s realities in social and economic policy. At the same time, senior staff need, at all costs, to avoid a “talking down” style that suggests they’ve “been there and done that” in ways that cut off further communication. An organization improves with employees that are comfortable challenging the concepts and asking questions about the teachings.

An organization’s store of knowledge is not very productive if it remains in senior staff’s heads or dense memos tucked away in file drawers. Communicating is about the message and its meaning, and both newer and senior staff need to keep both in mind when sharing and managing knowledge.

Author: Larisa Owen, Ph.D., M.B.A. [email protected]Dr. Owen is a Program Director with Children and Family Futures.  Dr. Owen works on several project including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization, including planning and implementation of veterans treatment courts (VTC) evaluation and technical assistance involving families in the VTC.  Dr. Owen has extensive experience evaluating the effectiveness of program implementation, program enhancement, and evaluation methods for state and national programs including training and evaluation of collaborative programs. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law

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