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Designing digital communications for diverse generations

  • Posted on September 6, 2017
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes
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In business today, four generations typically work together: Baby Boomers (up to 1964), Generation X (up to 1979), Millennials (up to 1997) and the youngest, Generation Z. While they may not differ much on paper, things get more complicated when digital communications occur outside of coffee breaks. This is when differences arise. Each age group has its own communication preferences. Anyone who believes they can reach every employee or integrate them into the added value with a single communication and collaboration tool is deeply mistaken. 

Work or home, it doesn’t matter. I’m a late Baby Boomer and I communicate with my parents almost exclusively by phone, although my mother does use WhatsApp from time to time. Email? No chance – neither my children (Millennials and Generation Z) nor my parents use it. What about Facebook? Only used by me and my friends; the only one in the family who (still) has an account with the social media giant is me. The kids rely on other services, namely Instagram, and of course the nightmare for all seniors, Snapchat.

Reaching different generations via one channel of digital communications is impossible. And if it doesn’t work in the family microcosm, how can it work at a company? It is, of course, just as difficult. So why is the introduction of new digital workplaces and work styles, such as IT projects, treated with a one-size-fits-all approach? It’s completely anachronistic and, due to the plurality of users' communication preferences, leads to one outcome: the generational conflict continues into the digital transformation, and the project turns into a failed investment.

Bringing everyone to the table
But how do you get it right in the corporate environment? Firstly, you take the cross-section of potential users and then allow yourself to be inspired by the possible technologies before assembling them into an overall structure. Virtual video online meetings and persistent chat? That‘s Generation Z’s preference. And the Baby Boomers? Definitely not! They prefer good old email, which in turn is abhorred by Generation Z. While Generation Z and Baby Boomers like personal meetings, Millennials and Generation X do not. In the end, only one thing helps: bringing user groups or representatives to the table and creating a development plan, an architecture blueprint. Users provide information about what they want and do not want to use. The more deeply they’re involved, the better it will work. It is important that user groups agree on tools and processes because they need to work across generations. 

The blueprint defines who should use which tool for which purpose. Here, technologies like those from Microsoft such as Yammer, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, SharePoint, etc. are now almost “plug in and play” – ready to use very quickly. The implementation of these blueprints and the introduction of “only” new functionalities require careful Change Management and Change Enablement. Almost no one uses a service simply because it exists; usage needs to be specifically initiated. Change Agents, which bring the blueprint closer to all age groups, are proven to be effective here. They exemplify the new work style, the altered digital workplace, and guide “their” user groups. They show the advantages, explain the processes, illustrate the business value and help with problems. It’s important that the user groups are picked up at the right place: some want a comparison showing them how the new process works, others use YouTube videos and some prefer a written guide. 

Such a blueprint is not static, but dynamic. As a rule, companies should always be asking some basic questions. “Are these still the tools we want to use? Do they support the business value that we’ve promised? Have any of the tools proved unsuitable? Are there new technologies that would make life easier for us and help us advance?” 

By the way: I myself have adjusted to the digital communications preferences of friends and family. I now use all channels: face-to-face, email, Facebook, LinkedIn, WhatsApp – I’ve even signed up for Instagram. ;-)

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