Age diversity as a key success factor for digitalization and innovation

The digital revolution: How age diversity is driving companies forward

Age diversity is becoming increasingly important in a rapidly changing digital world. Experienced employees contribute valuable knowledge and understanding of operational processes, while young talents shape the future with their innovative spirit.

The integration of digital technologies requires close collaboration between different generations. Companies that successfully combine this triad can benefit from the advantages of a diverse workforce and prepare themselves optimally for the challenges of the digital future.

Digitalization and supposed generational conflicts: why age diversity is becoming a success factor

The rapid dynamics and spread of digital technologies are changing the ways in which people communicate, cooperate and learn with each other. The starting conditions of employees in this dynamic development are just as different as the new technologies themselves. In my book “You are more than a number”, I highlighted a particularly polarizing factor in this equation: age.

On the one hand, digital natives have grown up with smartphones, Instagram and co. and navigate the digital world seemingly effortlessly. On the other hand, older employees seem to be facing a steeper learning curve – but they have an enormous amount of knowledge about operational processes and are therefore often able to assess which technologies are suitable for which application scenarios. In other words, the diverse possibilities of digitalization come up against an equally diverse workforce. Balancing this area of tension and building a bridge between innovation and experience is one of the most important tasks in the coming years.

Read more: Personal branding of the generations: 4 astonishing insights into social media use

New formats ensure innovative strength

New learning formats, such as reverse mentoring, can help here. I still remember the day I came across this model. I had a lunch appointment with an experienced manager. During dessert, my counterpart asked me: “I would like to be your mentee.” I was surprised at first – I knew mentoring programs mainly from the classic old-coach-young variant – but then I got to grips with this model more and more.

And the advantages are obvious, especially in the area of digitalization. Reverse mentoring programs turn the classic “old-coach-young” process on its head, thus leveraging the seniority principle. The younger employees do not have to hide from the wealth of experience of the older ones, and the older ones do not necessarily have to play the role of boss. And the one-way street in learning is dissolved. Experienced employees can expand their knowledge of new networks or technologies – using digitalization as a concrete example – while younger employees are able to learn more about the company processes in which they are embedded.

Empathy is becoming the most important soft skill

The pioneer of reverse mentoring is the US manager Jack Welch. Back in the late 1990s, he called on 500 top managers to find younger mentors within the company – he himself was the first to do so. Probably also because he said of himself: “I was afraid of the internet… because I couldn’t type”. Welch is representative of many people who are accompanied by fears in their professional lives. And it is precisely these fears that often culminate in supposed generational conflicts in digitalization projects.

Young people are afraid that their ideas will be stifled because more experienced employees supposedly have more knowledge about the company. And older employees sometimes feel that they can no longer keep up in times of innovation and technological leaps. However, successful digitalization projects are only possible if both sides can share their knowledge without fear of rejection. In my experience, joint project work is a decisive factor.

Innovation consultant Ferdinand Walther sums up the advantages of age-diverse project teams in my book: “Ideally, strengths and weaknesses are distributed in a complementary way and balance each other out in combination. The aplomb of the old meets the courage and willingness to change of the young. Domain expertise and existing work processes are questioned and enriched with creative new approaches.” This joint project work not only results in better products, but also in shared working environments in which empathy for the challenges of the other party is automatically created.

Knowledge transfer is strengthened by age diversity

Knowledge transfer often takes place primarily in onboarding and offboarding, but rarely along the entire employer lifecycle journey. However, this model will reach its limits at the latest when the almost 13 million baby boomers retire by 2036. However, well-planned generation management in the company will help enormously to master what is probably the biggest transfer of knowledge in recent centuries. After all, the less interest companies take in the knowledge of their older employees, the less interest older employees take in the transfer of knowledge within the company. Companies would therefore do well to value all generations and not just address the issue of knowledge transfer when employees leave the company. This point is particularly important in digitalization projects in which individual programmers or product owners carry a lot of knowledge.

Age diversity increases employee loyalty

Nowadays, hardly any company can avoid the shortage of skilled workers – especially in areas such as software development. And this doesn’t just mean the classic “war for talent“, but also dealing with older employees who also want to be valued. A close exchange between the generations, which is ideally also supported by HR departments, creates a closer bond with the company – young employees come into contact with experienced (managers) at an early stage and expand their network; experienced employees are actively involved in the design of digitalization projects and thus maintain a steep learning curve. If self-efficacy then sets in, i.e. employees themselves notice that projects are running better, the climate in the company also benefits. Whereas at company parties and lunch events, generations usually stay among themselves, this automatically mixes the groups.

The future is young AND old

Cross-generational collaboration must therefore be expanded in the face of demographic change. It offers a great opportunity in a globalized and digitalized world. Because the future is young AND old. Because only together and on the basis of mutual appreciation and trust can we shape future transformations and breakthroughs for the benefit of all.

DR. IRÈNE KILUBI hat als promovierte Wirtschaftsingenieurin und Unternehmensberaterin in ihrer Vita Unternehmen wie BMW, Deloitte, Amazon & Co auf der Liste. Nach vielen Stationen folgt sie jetzt ihrer ganz persönlichen Leidenschaft und ist mit den Themen Community Building, Corporate Influencer und Connecting GenXYZ unterwegs. Darüber hinaus ist sie als Expert Advisor für den European Innovation Council Accelerator der Europäischen Kommission tätig. Dr. Irène Kilubi ist Universitätsdozentin für Digitales Marketing und Entrepreneurship und eine gefragte Referentin auf Konferenzen und Veranstaltungen. Mein Buch »Du bist mehr als eine Zahl. Warum das Alter keine Rolle spielt.« erschien am 29. Februar im Murmann Verlag und kann hier bestellt werden.

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