The Knowledge Baton: Learning From The Next Generation

pass the batonI couldn’t help but smile the other day when a colleague told me that his three-year-old son had showed him how to play Angry Birds. “I guess it’s a sign of the times,” he mused.

He’s not wrong. Only this month, I read an article about a study[1] which found that up to 40% of parents are taught to use IT and the Internet by their children.

Cyberspace cadets

This sort of bottom-up, inter-generational learning is indeed the way of the world today.

In our new book, Leadership 2030, my colleague Yvonne Sell and I describe how digitization is becoming a worldwide phenomenon led by younger generations.

These ‘digital natives’ have grown up online, never knowing life without the Internet and mobile communications. They routinely live virtual lifestyles, where the online world is every bit as comfortable as the ‘real’ one. A report from Cisco quipped that the smartphone could be considered the 207th bone in their bodies.

The Y factor

But what fascinates me most about younger generations’ ease with technology is its implications for the workplace.

Younger workers are often pigeonholed as ‘difficult’ employees. Rightly or wrongly, ‘Gen Y’ gets tarred as unambitious, unconscientious and unmanageable, not to mention socially awkward and lacking respect for corporate convention.

But businesses will dismiss them at their peril. For the digital technology that comes so naturally to them is having a powerful impact on organizations.

Digitization is transforming how people live, work, meet and innovate. It’s blurring the boundaries between our personal and professional lives. And it’s spawning countless new product markets, service offerings, and business models. Younger workers instinctively grasp this, because they are at the very heart of digitization.

Push me, pull you

For others, however, the digital world can be bewildering – older employees in particular.

In my view, digitization presents a crucial two-way, cross-hierarchical learning opportunity for organizations.

Mutual, intergenerational workgroups could be established to implement the type of knowledge transfer highlighted in the above-mentioned study – and experienced by my colleague, the Angry Birds novice.

Younger workers could demystify digital technology for older colleagues, demonstrating how devices and applications function, and how best to exploit them in the workplace.

At the same time, experienced staff could educate younger co-workers on navigating corporate life.

The need to share

I believe that it’s becoming increasingly important for organizations to share knowledge – digital knowledge in particular – throughout the workforce. There are several reasons for this:

  • Training: Innovation in the digital era will far outpace businesses’ ability to develop training on new technology.
  • Talent: Changes in global demographics will result in a dramatic shortage of skills – and especially of younger talent. Businesses will need to be ready to learn from all available sources of knowledge and skills.
  • Transparency: Digitization and social media are creating a transparent, ‘always-on’ culture, with little distinction between private and professional life. Businesses need to understand the implications for their reputations and working practices.
  • Innovation: Advanced technological innovations are set to generate powerful new applications, transform many aspects of life and create untold new product markets. Firms cannot afford to lose out in the race for innovation, in which digital technology will play a vital role.

Leading the way

It’s my experience that firms rarely attempt to cross-skill in the way I’ve described.

To my mind, this is because most organizational cultures are too hierarchical, which generates an understanding of learning as a purely unilateral activity: senior staff pass the benefits of their experience on to subordinates.

As such, it takes a significant culture shift to establish genuine two-way learning. And it takes a certain kind of leader to achieve this – and to recognize the need to learn from the next generation.

It takes what I call an altrocentric leader.

We describe altrocentric leaders in detail in Leadership 2030. They are individuals whose primary focus is others rather than themselves. Confident – but not egotistical – they are mature and self-aware enough to know that they don’t have all the answers.

What’s more, they recognize that the growing number of stakeholders they need to satisfy includes an increasingly age-diverse workforce. They also have the self-assurance and openness to listen to diverse perspectives, including those of younger workers further down the hierarchy.

The future’s digital

As digitization progresses apace, working and managing digitally will simply become the norm. Apps will routinely be used for every aspect of running an organization, from leadership development through to decisions about recruitment and pay.

This is one reason why I’m convinced that altrocentric leaders are the future.

The digital era will demand leaders capable of embedding a culture of two-way, cross-generational learning into their organizations’ practices and processes. And like the parents in the intergenerational study, leaders who are not afraid to learn from the younger generation.


[1] Teresa Correa, Bottom-Up Technology Transmission Within Families: Exploring How Youths Influence Their Parents’ Digital Media Use With Dyadic Data, Journal of Communication, Volume 64, Issue 1, February 2014

Georg Vielmetter heads Hay Group’s European leadership and talent practice, and is regional director for the consulting practices across Europe. He has a master’s
degree in sociology, economics, and psychology, and a Ph.D. in philosophy and
social theory. He has published works on leadership, culture, and philosophy,
and is a regular keynote speaker at management conferences in Europe. You can
follow him on twitter @GVielmetter.

Article published by Hay Group. It originally appeared on Hay Group’s blog and has been republished with permission.