Age Is Just A Number: Mobility & The Multigenerational Workforce

By  Susan Nunziata — December 16, 2008

Jim Barrecchia, Senior Director Business Systems Delivery with Atlas Air/Polar Air Cargo, Greg Lush, CIO of The Linc Group, and Kevin Baradet, CTO of the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University are in charge of mobility deployments for three very different organizations. In Part One of our two-part series on Mobility & The Multigenerational Workforce, they share some of the challenges they face in deploying mobility to their workforce. In Part Two, they'll discuss the ways they manage the change process to ease the transition to mobility for their workers.

Workplace mobility is not just about technology. It brings with it a lot of processes and practices that have to be put into effect. And your workforce will have varying comfort levels with the processes and technologies that can accompany it.

For instance, Jim Barrecchia, Senior Director Business Systems Delivery with Atlas Air/Polar Air Cargo, deployed what his organization was calling a Personal Communications Device. But he soon found out that the older workers were calling it a Prisoner Control Devices.

There are a lot of mindset issues that sometimes cut across generational lines. But there's also what the marketers like to call psychographic factors. It's not just about age differences, but also about how people are thinking about technology. Some workers are just more comfortable with technology than others, no matter what their age.

Nonetheless, the future is mobile. Forrester Research is forecasting that nearly 75% of workers will be mobile in one form or another by 2012. The report notes that while companies typically define mobile workers as those who will be away from their desks at least one fifth of the time (either telecommuting or out in the field or travelling on sales calls) there's a rapidly growing segment of younger, entry-level workers who may have desk jobs but they're mobile users and they want access to corporate applications on the go. They want to check their email while commuting, file expense reports and the like. Forrester calls these workers the Mobile Wannabes, and predicts that this group will make up 25% of employees by 2012, particularly as smartphones become more popular and simply as younger workers enter the workforce.

These younger workers are bringing with them very different expectations of the workplace. According to Harris Interactive, 55% of teens age 13 to 19 expect the cellphone to completely change the structure of how people work. They envision a future of almost offices and no commuting.

Atlas Air/Polar Air Cargo operates out of some 300 cities. It first deployed its Personal Communications Devices and custom applications to its crew of 747 captains and first officers three years ago. The workforce ranges in age from 35 to about 60.

"Our younger members aren't really all that young when we think about mobile technology and people in their teens," says Barrecchia. "The crew force generally is what we like to call operating in a mode of  'Uncertainty Avoidance.' They don't like things that are new, they don't like things that they could possibly not understand, and so adoption was a big challenge for us and had a pretty significant impact on the way we did our development cycle, our proof of concept testing and, certainly, the communications plan and all the different phases of the application rollout, which were really characterized more by the crew's attitude towards the device."

In the beginning, Barrecchia says he encountered extreme rejection, ambiguity and even animosity when introducing mobile devices to the company's crew force. Three years down the road, he says, "We're in the mode of enthusiastic acceptance, but it's taken a lot of redesigns along the way of the user interface and some of the things we had to learn about the data that we were delivering."

The Linc Group is a facilities management company with 4,200 employees serving more than 100,000 customers in 45 states and select international countries. They're all served by an I.T. staff of four. They've been using mobility solutions for the past 10 years.

"We have age ranges from the mid- to late-60s to the 20s, and the variety of those people and what they expect is totally different," says CIO Greg Lush. "The older guys work hard and do their thing. The new people coming out of college seem to have a different perspective on things, and they want information immediately, right then, in small bursts, in cryptic bursts that you don't really understand what it says. So we've got this huge wide variety of employees and their attitudes towards technology."

At Cornell University, Kevin Baradet, CTO of the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management (and a member of the Mobile Enterprise Editorial Advisory Board) says, "We have the classic decentralized model that's found in a lot of higher education. We have a central I.T. department which is responsible for getting people paid, making sure students get their grades and transcripts are kept track of. A lot of what happens in the mobile space is ad hoc'ed and prototyped in the research areas to meet a very specific need. Eventually it will bubble into the central I.T. group who then are left with the task of taking these custom one-off things and developing a solution that's scalable across 20,000 people and two planets [the University is actively involved in monitoring the Mars rovers]."

Baradet has to accommodate the needs of older tenured faculty, who are often technology-averse, as well as newer faculty members. "They want me to rip out all the blackboards in the classroom and replace them with electronic whiteboards," says Baradet. "They like electronic delivery of class materials. They like to be able to send a text message to students reminding them that assignments are due. We like to be able to provide them with a service to be able to do that. It's mostly their faith in me that whatever I roll out to them is going to be reliable and not embarrass them in front of their peer group or their classes. That enables me to move them in a direction that satisfies their customer, which is the student."

This article was excerpted from a panel discussion at the 2008 Mobile Enterprise Executive Summit, Nov. 5-7, 2008 in Orlando, FL.


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