Closing the generation gap within the South African project management environment

Shaun Ronald Cawood,

Abstract

During the last decade, organisations have had to reconsider their strategies of managing and executing their current projects in an ever-changing environment. A number of challenges, such as inter alia, the current economic crisis in South Africa, globalisation, improved product quality, shorter delivery times, budget cuts, and fewer personnel have impacted project delivery. In addition to these problems, organisations also have to deal with large generational diversity—presenting its very own set of challenges such as conflicting working values, loss of knowledge and expertise due to retirement, and the older generation not transferring their skills, as well as a shift in working methods. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the current South African project environment and identify if and why there is generational conflict between the different generations at work. This research would provide rich data enabling project organisations to re-strategise their HR policies and programs in order to better harness knowledge transfer between different generations, retain younger generations of workers, and allow for different generations to work in harmony with each other. Through these approaches, the organisations would be able to create a very powerful melting pot for innovation, as well as cross-pollination between generations through mentoring, coaching, and knowledge-sharing.

A wide range of literature on the current generational theories, as well as differences in work values between the different generations was reviewed. In addition, a quantitative field study was employed as the central focus point for data collection and analysis of the current project environment within the South African environment. However, to achieve more in-depth knowledge, a qualitative approach was also used, including a number of interviews and one focus group to obtain better clarity on the quantitative data.

Findings

From the study, it was identified that generational conflict exists within the current project environment and these were highlighted by the following three areas: different working values, lack of knowledge sharing across generations, and resistance to change from all generations. It was also confirmed in the study that the difference in working values was the most significant contributor for the generational conflict.

Organisations first need to understand their current work force because this would allow them to utilise and retain the services of valued employees who are respectful of each other's differences and knowledge levels. This would energise organisations to rethink their strategies of managing their current diverse work force by pro-actively implementing knowledge sharing programs across all generations including: mentoring and coaching and making sure that diversity appreciation workshops are implemented.

Research Limitations

A few limitations were identified:

  • This is a snapshot study of the current workforce in the project environment; a sample size of only 250 people was used.
  • Data collection was restricted to a period of only six months.
  • Numerous respondents also did not know how to respond to the open questions (However, the face-to-face interviews have assisted in addressing this limitation).

Future studies should be more focused on working values within the millennials and the new “generation Z,” as well as understanding the changes needed to accommodate the new generations.

Practical Implications

With generational conflict and changes in work values, organisations should take a closer look at their approaches, both for harnessing knowledge and diversity, as well as for learning how to attract, retain, and empower the current younger generations within their workforce.

Keywords: generation theory, generation gap, cohort, intergenerational conflict, Cusper's, silent generation, baby boomers, generation X (gen X), generation Y (gen Y or millennial), and diversity

Introduction

“Almost every organisation wants to be seen to be doing projects,” as projects are often seen as a means to getting work done more effectively and efficiently in a fast changing environment (Weaver, 2007). During the second decade of the twenty-first century, companies have been put under extreme pressure by the current business environment and the economic crisis. These external pressures, such as competitiveness, shorter product life cycles, and reduction in costs, have forced organisations to rethink their current project execution strategies so as to become more innovative, efficient, agile, and proactive in the manner in which they execute their projects.

Organisations can have all the latest project management methodology tools and technology, but if they don't understand and manage the current organisational workforce and their behaviour, the organisation will not be able to achieve their goals. The one area of particular importance is that organisations have four different generations in the current workforce and can be found below in Exhibit 1. With this diversity comes conflict and it is important for organisations to manage these conflict areas. The three main conflict areas would include the following: knowledge sharing between generations, work values, and resistance to change.

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Exhibit 1: Generational boundaries.

Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

As a result of the constantly changing world, organisations have had to develop better methods of making faster and effective decisions which would allow them to remain competitive in the global environment. These decisions have come to be made more by teams and technical groups than by organisations’ managers (Dose & Klimoski, 1999, p. 84). This has, however, led to the increase of generational and cultural diversity within teams or groups. Furthermore, “[it has become] increasingly important to understand the factors that determine high performance and group-member satisfaction” (Dose & Klimoski, 1999, p. 84). It has been found that organisations need to pay more attention to managing diversity within teams and groups so as to achieve the best possible outcomes of group work (Dose & Klimoski, 1999). It is however important to understand the difference between a generation and cohorts because this study will only focus on generations and this is due to the type of study (snapshot study).

Through the course of this literature review the focus will be on the work values as well as the challenge's facing the new diverse work force due. This was decided due to the major impact these to areas have on the generational conflict within the South African environment.

Cohort effects

It is important that a distinction be made between a cohort and a generation when looking at cohort analysis.

  • Generation – “An identifiable group that shares birth years, age, location and significant life events at critical developmental stages” (Kupperschmidt, 2000, p. 66).
  • Cohorts – Cohorts are persons “passing through time who come to share a common habitus and lifestyle … [and] have a strategic temporal location to a set of resources as a consequence of historical accidents and the exclusionary practices of social closure” (Parry & Urwin, 2011, p. 81).

The reasons why cohort effects should be taken into consideration can be explained by referring to a study done by Parry and Urwin (2011) which involved two individuals who had been born in two different time periods (60's and 90's) but at a specified time. The results indicated a specific difference in values between cohorts and, furthermore, that two out of the three effects (age and period) would have an effect.

  • People mature at different ages and this could have an effect on the type of response a person would give in a snapshot study comprising people of different ages.
  • People of different ages are also at different periods in their lives. This could have a major effect because people want different things at different periods in their lives.

Work values

It is important to remember that a person's basic values are moulded during childhood and the early teenage years and that these basic values stay relatively stable throughout that person's life (Codrington & Grant-Marshall, 2011, p. 12).

Work goals or values are seen as expressions of basic values in a work setting. Basic values contain four types of work values: intrinsic, extrinsic, social and prestige (Ros, 1999, p. 49). Extrinsic work values focus more on the tangible outcomes from the work environment (income, promotion and position within the organisation) whereas intrinsic work values focus more on the intangible rewards (interest in doing the work, learning opportunities and the opportunity to develop new technologies or equipment) (Twenge, et al., 2010, p. 1121).

Smola and Sutton (2002, p. 365) aptly summed up the relationship between work values and personal values as follows: “Values define what people believe to be fundamentally right or wrong. It could be said then, that work values apply the definition of right and wrong to the work setting”.

Challenges facing a new diverse work force

Today, organisations face two major challenges:

  • The largest diversity of different generations within the workforce (four different generations).
  • The loss of a large number of workers from the older generations (silent generation and baby boomers).

Hoff (2010, p. 4) has pointed out that one of the biggest challenges that organisations will have to deal with in the near future is the retirement of a large number of older workers and their replacement with a new, younger generation of workers.

These challenges have compelled organisations to look at different methods of recruiting and retaining workers and transferring knowledge between generations (Glass, 2007). This statement was confirmed by Twenge et al. (2010, p. 1134) who pointed out that the young workers of today generally have different values than the young workers of 15 and 30 years ago, and that this may affect recruitment and management.

Organisations are, therefore, challenged to adapt their approaches to harness the strengths of each generation to the benefit of their organisations. Kupperschmidt (in Smola & Sutton, 2002, p. 363) has suggested that a better understanding of the generational differences could help organisations to empower their workforce to be more productive, innovative and diligent. With a view to managing the change, organisations would have to make a shift towards a more balanced work-life approach and consider the added incentive of reward packages. This approach would allow for a better work-life balance for both the older generation (baby boomers) and the younger generations (generation X and generation Y). Achieving this balance would ensure a more satisfied workforce, which would increase work performance as well as the retention of the younger generations (Twenge et al, 2010; Smola & Sutton, 2002).

Results

Data gathering process

During the first phase of the online data gathering process, a total of 250 surveys were sent out, to which only 45 people responded. During the second round of the distribution, it was imperative that telephonic contact be made with the non-respondents and this proved to be quite successful as 30 more people responded, increasing the total respondents to 75. The third phase of the process included face-to-face meetings with respondents who were within driving or walking distance, and this resulted in a further increase of 18 respondents, so that the final number of participants was 93. The response received is summarised in Exhibit 2.

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Exhibit 2: Response to online survey.

A good statistical representation was obtained in the survey in terms of geographical diversity, number of employees in companies, and the level of position of the project management practitioners. The 94 respondents obtained for this study's survey (for which an acceptable number of respondents would be 68) provided a 90% confidence level and a 10% confidence interval.

Generational Conflict

From the data, it was found that 58% of the people agreed that there was conflict between the different generations in the current project environment, whereas 43% indicated that there was no generation conflict in the current project management environment.

In the study, a clear distinction was made between the older generations (the silent generation and the baby boomers) and the younger generations (generation X and generation Y). The data indicated the following areas of conflict:

  • The younger generations rely on technology and theory to solve problems on a project whereas the older generations follow a more hands-on and interactive approach.
  • The older generations (silent generation and baby boomers) have a perception that younger generations (generation X and generation Y) are less loyal to the company and/or the project.
  • The younger generations do not get out on the site and instead control their projects remotely from the office or from behind their laptops.
  • There is resistance to change from both the older and younger generations. The older generations resist change related to technology and new methods of project management, whereas the younger generations resist having to tap the knowledge and experience of the older generations.

From the information listed above, it is clear that there are three main issues which are listed below which are causing conflict between the different generations in the current work environment. These conflicts have been confirmed by the literature (Glass, 2007; Cennamo & Gardner, 2008; Macky, Gardner & Forsyth, 2008; Robinson, et al, 2003). It must be noted that a number of the conflicts raised by the respondents involved issues such as communication and knowledge sharing, new approaches, and work values. Below is a list of the top three areas of conflict highlighted during the online survey and the interviews:

  • Arrogance or loyalty towards the organisation and/or the project and the other generation (work values) (60%)
  • Gap between the generations (knowledge and information sharing) (20%)
  • New approaches to managing projects (resistance to change) (10%)

Even though the issues have been divided into the three most important ones, it is important not to look at them in isolation. Isolation thinking would result in additional conflict and stress between the workforce. These three areas of conflict will be discussed next, starting with the highest impact; the three areas are discussed below:

Arrogance and Loyalty Toward the Organisation/Project and the Other Generations (Work Values)

The analysis of the questions relating to arrogance and loyalty revealed a major conflict area between the different generations. Both the older and the younger generations raised the issue of arrogance, and their feelings could be due to a number of factors, such as entitlement, knowledge hoarding, promotions in the organisation, movement between projects and organisations, and frustration with regard to work hours. The other areas of conflict which were raised by the respondents of different generations in this study were that of differing perceptions of the work environment and work values and are discussed below under extrinsic and intrinsic work values.

The data gathered from both the survey and the interviews showed that a marked difference in work values was perceived between the different generations. From the 79 respondents, 86% perceived that there is a difference in work values between the generations, whereas 14% perceived no difference.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Work Values

For the purpose of this study, the questions regarding extrinsic and intrinsic values were divided into separate categories. The first set focused on extrinsic values and they were split into 10 different categories which can be found below Exhibit 3. A response rate of 63% was achieved on these questions, of which nine respondents were female and 51 were male. The distribution between generations was good: most respondents were from generation X, followed closely by baby boomers and generation Y, while only one, a male respondent, came from the silent generation.

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Exhibit 3: Extrinsic work values: Distribution for generations.

The results indicated that there were three major extrinsic values: namely money (A), a better work environment (C), and an incentive and a bonus (D). Once the extrinsic values were analysed into gender subsections, it was found that men were far more focused on getting money and bonuses than women, to whom an incentive bonus (D) and time off (B) were more important. Once the results were analysed even further into generation groups, it was clear to see that the men from the younger generation (generation Y) were more focused on money (A), an incentive bonus (D), and promotion status (F) than their female counterparts.

Interestingly, indications were that the older generations seemed to value a stable and enjoyable work environment more than money, promotions, and incentives. This was in line with the findings in the literature (Twenge et al, 2010, p. 1134). Another shift occurred as far as both the male and the female genders were concerned: both attached more value to a balanced and stable environment than to money, promotion, and incentives.

These results support the hypothesis in the literature that the values of people shift as they get older. In contrast to people in their twenties, people in their fifties are more focused on personality and motivations (Cennamo & Gardner in Macky et al, 2008, p. 859). “Baby boomers will show higher levels of extrinsic, status, altruism, and social work values than generation X and generation Y” (Cennamo & Gardner, 2008, p. 893).

In conclusion to the extrinsic section, a question was asked to the respondents about whether or not their extrinsic work values were being met by the organisation and it was interesting to observe that among all the generations, 61% felt that their needs were being met either on a small scale or not at all, whereas only 15% felt that their extrinsic work values were being met substantially.

The second set of questions focused on intrinsic values, and the respondents of all generations were asked to list their top five intrinsic values. A response rate of 64% was achieved. Again, generation X was the largest group to respond, followed closely by the baby boomers and the silent generation. During the intrinsic analysis, a six-scale analysis approach was used and the sections can be found below Exhibit 4.

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Exhibit 4: Intrinsic work values distribution for the generations.

The results indicated three areas of need within the current project environment: namely, recognition or praise (A), teamwork or belonging (D), and personal development (F). The high values obtained for B (taking ownership) and C (being involved with decision making), were found to be in line with the current literature which states that generation X and generation Y value meaningful work and responsibility (Arnett, 2004; Lancaster & Stillman, 2003; Tulgan, 2003, 2009 commented in Twenge et al., 2010, p. 1124) . According to a communication by Sauer (2013), the viewpoints expressed by the respondents in this study could have been influenced by the current economic crisis that South Africa finds itself in.

Analyses of the generational data revealed a gradual decline in the intrinsic work values related to taking ownership (B) and being part of decision making (C) from the younger generation to the older generations (baby boomers and silent generation), as well as a significant shift related to the issues of belonging (D) and personal development (F). On the other hand, the respondents from generation X, baby boomers, and the silent generation indicated high personal development values (90% in the case of the generation X respondents).

The respondents were also asked whether they thought their organisations were meeting their intrinsic work values. On a scale from small to large, 53% of the respondents rated their organisations as medium, while 30% of the respondents thought their organisations met their values to a small extent or not at all.

For the intrinsic work values, the organisations would have to investigate the shift of working values of both the younger and the older generations due to the reinvention of the older generations, as well as the younger generation wanting a more involved role from both an ownership role, as well as in decision making. To achieve both of these objectives, organisations would have to set up strict boundaries within their project environments which would allow for all the generations to work towards a focused goal of making money for the organisation and for each generation to respect the others for their diversity in both knowledge gained via studies, as well as through practical experience.

To achieve these goals, all generations would have to set aside their egos and misperceptions about the other generation and work together by sharing knowledge via mentorships, coaching, training days, and by being able to respect each other for their diversity.

Gap Between Generations (Knowledge and Information Sharing)

An aspect that was raised in the online survey was the information and knowledge gap between the older and the younger generations. This gap resulted from the loss of critical skills and the lack of time to set up coaching or mentoring programmes between the older and the younger generations. The existence of such a gap was confirmed by the respondents in the survey and by the interviewees. Some of the comments referred to kingdom building, control issues, the older generation's lack of tolerance when questioned on thinking, and younger people sitting behind computers without visiting the site of a project, in addition to comments about the younger generation having no drive to get things done.

This information suggested that at least three out of the four generations (baby boomers, generation X, and generation Y) were all trying to improve their technological and information management skills, so as to keep up with the latest developments in these fields. This was confirmed during the structured interviews with two respondents, namely Cawood (2013) and McConnell (2013) (one a baby boomer and the other, generation X) who both stated that to be able to stay abreast of the current employee distribution, both generations would have to reinvent themselves.

New Approaches to Managing Projects (New Technologies, Theories and Management Styles)

From the results and findings, it was clear that new technologies and management styles are sources of conflict between the generations.

Owing to the ever-changing technology environment within the current global economy, working people are confronted with a more mobile and faster-moving office environment—the younger generation work with iPads and smartphones instead of making notes on paper and working with written documents. The world has changed and information needs to be presented as soon as possible, otherwise it is outdated. This was captured in one of the responses by a 38 year-old male when he stated the following: “Some older person's reason would be that it is quicker, for example, to draw a plan on the back of a cigarette box rather than use CAD, while younger folk prefer the benefits of the software.”

Conclusions and Recommendations

The results of the data analysis show three main generational conflict areas:

  • Differences in working values
  • Lack of knowledge sharing between generations
  • Resistance to change

These areas are also identified in the literature as the most contributing factors enhancing generational conflict. It is also imperative that organisations understand their employees working values, diversity within the group, and resistance to change. It is a given that the organisation has the current project management tools in place. However, these tools cannot be used effectively in isolation of the understanding of the organisations workforce.

In order for project organisations to achieve a better understanding of their workforce, they need to implement the proper precautionary measures to close these generational gaps which are caused by misunderstanding and miscommunication between the generations in a project team. They need to make use of diversity to create and retain a strong, focused project culture which would allow the harnessing of all the different strengths from across all generations.

Based on the findings from the literature review, which are well aligned with the data captured in this study, the following approaches are recommended:

  • Due to the current challenges being faced by the South African economy, the generational conflict will be exacerbated and there will potentially be more clashes between the different generations if organisations don't start reacting and rectifying the current generational conflict areas. Therefore, it would be advisable for the organisations to take note of the ever-changing project environment and make the required changes by looking at allowing the younger generations to take more of an active lead in ownership and decision-making via asking the older generation for guidance and help. In doing so, it allows the younger generation to feel empowered and gives them more freedom, while at the same time giving the older generation the exposure to the latest technology and information systems which could help prolong their tenure. This will be a very difficult balancing act for organisations and therefore, it is very important that they appoint the correct leaders within the organisational structure who would be able to facilitate this handover and make sure that there is a clear succession plan (talent management program) put in place.
  • Organisations should make a conscious effort toward changing the misconceptions which each generation has about each other. This could be done by putting programs in place that encourage mentoring, coaching, information sharing, training days, cross-functional training days, and by promoting more interaction between different generations on the work sites of different projects.
  • It is recommended that organisations evaluate their workforce and make sure that their project teams are on par with the current project methodologies. This should be done in a manner which would not seem intrusive or confrontational towards the workforce because if the workforce identifies such investigations, they could start to resist the intervention. The major goal of this approach would be to create a diverse group of people by using age, years of experience, and natural leadership skills to evaluate the programs’ information and content.
  • Lastly, it is recommended that the group has a very strong yet dynamic leader who would be able to channel the conflict in a more constructive manner. A classic example was mentioned by a 45 year-old male during his interview. A manager (gentleman in his 50s) who was seen as being egotistical and not interested in sharing knowledge or involving the younger generation in major decision-making roles was moved from the line manager role into a mentoring-type role where he could be harnessed better within the organisation. This process allowed the person to develop his people skills and ensured that he was transferring his knowledge and skills. However, it should be noted that a potential downside/risk to this approach is that the incumbent might rather choose to leave the organisation. However, in this instance the approach of moving the person worked so well that this gentleman has completely changed his approach and he has started to fit better into the group, allowing for a better knowledge transfer between generations. The other approach would be to reduce his/her audience and take the limelight off the subject (Botha, 2013). This last statement about reducing the person's audience was confirmed by a 68 year-old male in his interview (the writer has personally witnessed this approach, where someone was neutralized by a reduction in audience).

These statements were confirmed by the research study, but there were a few areas which were outside the current literature which indicate that the older generation still wants to improve their current skill sets by understanding the latest technology and information management skills, such as using the latest simulation technologies, using iPads, and through new communication tools (McConnell, 2013) and (van Jaarsveld, 2013).

During the writing of this thesis, a number of limitations were identified and are listed below:

  • The first limitation is a snapshot study of the current workforce in the project environment. This type of study would limit the respondents’ options on generational conflict to their current opinions about the different generations with which they work and is therefore limiting because people change as they grow older and their priorities change. This was evident in the work values section where the younger generation was more focused on achieving status, where the older generations were more focused on stability and calm around them. For future studies, it would be advisable to conduct longitudinal studies as this would reduce the effect of aging. This was confirmed by (Smola & Sutton, 2002, p. 367).
  • The second limitation was the time constraint on this thesis. This has led to the problem of not being able to get a larger amount of respondents for the online survey, as well as to include a more thorough literature study.
  • The third and final point is that some of the respondents did not fully understand all the questions, hence bringing in a level of subjectiveness. This was evident during the written questions where a number of the people made mistakes in the way they interpreted the question. This problem was corrected with some of the respondents by having a face-to-face interview (15% of the total respondents).

Future studies should focus more on working values within the millennials and the new generation Z, as well as understanding the changes required to accommodate the new generation within the current workforce. As an example, organisations could be more involved with universities and conduct regular guest lectures which would help stimulate the younger generation's mindset about what the working world is all about. This would allow for knowledge to be distributed across organisations, as well as within universities. This approach would enable academia and industry to have a better understanding of each other's needs and hence, equip the future generations as they enter into industry.

More studies need to be conducted to evaluate how work values are changing and what is causing them to change. Currently, organisations are only looking at the generational affects, but it is clear that the external world is also having an effect on changing work values.

This leads to the final comment: “In closing, it would be the organisations of the future who best harness their workforce diversity and knowledge levels that will survive and prosper.”

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, Shaun Ronald Cawood
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK

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