Process Automation Generations Talk to Each Other

A Dialog Across the Generations About Plant Operations and Each Generation's Different Ways of Looking at Problems

By Danaca Jordan, Greg McMillan, Soundar Ramchandran, Hunter Vegas

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During an internship, this easy access to information almost caused a misunderstanding with my supervisor, who came to me concerned that I was not asking enough questions about a new project. Just as we now use a global positioning system (GPS) instead of asking for directions, I did not want to seem ignorant of the topic, so I went online for all my answers. I have since learned that I am not supposed to be omnipotent. Plant staff has years of detail on the specific plant history and what has and hasn't worked over the years, so I tap multiple sources for information.

Hunter: Before I answer any of these questions let me start by saying that I am not a big fan of creating generational "labels" and trying to force fit a large group of people into a simplistic box. Every engineer is different; each is motivated by his own particular set of personal experiences and many take some offence when they are lumped into a generic group which may not have any relevance or similarity to them at all.

To that end I will tend to frame my answers by referring to "younger/less experienced" engineers and "older/more seasoned" engineers. Of course, younger and older is all relative, but I have found this reference to be much more useful than grouping engineers by their year of birth.

Communication is critical to the success of any project regardless of the age group involved. So many intergenerational problems balloon out of control when one group stops talking/listening to the other. I have watched older engineers dismiss great ideas from younger engineers because they had not thought of it themselves, or they were unfamiliar with the technology. I have watched younger engineers stumble and fail because they thought they knew it all and were too proud to ask for help. (To be honest I have probably been guilty of both at various times in my career!)

Open channels of communication allow all age groups to propose ideas and have those ideas fairly and completely evaluated. If an idea has merit, then it will get implemented. If the idea has problems and is discarded, then everyone understands why and learns from it. Talking things out before action is taken gets everyone on board and lets the group take advantage of everyone's talents.

Much has been written about the types of communication used by older and younger generations. Younger engineers often rely on texting, tweets, blogs and the like, while older engineers tend to gravitate to more formal written information. Personally I have found that the most effective communication is a face-to-face conversation. I derive as much (or more) information from the visual cues, body language and voice inflection than I do from the words themselves. Tweets, texts, emails and memos are fine, but if you truly want to communicate with another person, then there is nothing better than doing it in person.

Soundar: While realizing generalization is subject to individual experience and uniqueness, free will and adaptation in the human response, the recognition of the generational differences can help us understand some of the behavior at play in communication. Statistical methods can confirm these tendencies.

Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964) are characterized by hard work, positive attitude and a general sense that the world will get better with time. Most people were physically fit, and life was not lived in excess. There was a strong correlation between working hard and becoming wealthy. Work was seen as the reliable means to become financially independent, and there were many examples of this around common friends and social circles in many neighborhoods. Boomers have self-confidence and trust authority. They want a prestigious title and a corner office. They respected their parents because they were controlled and indulged as children. Education for them was a freedom of expression. The key question Boomer asks is "What does it mean?"
Generation X (1960 to 1984) – This was a period of awakening for many. There were dramatic contrasts in individual choices and opinions on wide-ranging topics (for example, the Vietnam war, Nixon, Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan, Berlin Wall, Chernobyl, ending of Cold War, AIDS, MTV, etc.) that spanned the whole gamut from drug use, dysfunctional families, domestic violence and school bullying to embracing social diversity, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation. It was a time of extremes. This generation displays a low level of trust towards authority. They want to have the freedom to not to have to perform meaningless tasks that lead to nowhere. They dislike commercialism, restriction of individuality, the mind-numbing corporate monochrome culture, etc. They tended to more pragmatic and focus more on self-awareness. The key question that Generation X asks is "Does it work?"

Generation Y (1977 to 1994) is incredibly sophisticated technologically and immune to most traditional forms of marketing and sales pitches. They are more racially and ethnically diverse from the previous generation. They grew up in the world of cable TV, satellite radios, Internet, and e-magazines, etc. They tend to be very flexible and fast to change. They expect to be successful in whatever they do and are very competitive and driven, which sometimes gets viewed as having the potential to be rebellious. They have a high level of trust towards authority, but at the same time they are less trusting of individuals. They prefer meaningful work. Members of Generation Y are definite about parenthood and view marriage and parenthood as more important than their careers and success. They seek protection as they were protected as children and, therefore, need a structure of accountability. They crave community and care for the group as a whole, as opposed to themselves. The key question that the Millennials want the answer to is "How do we build it?"

Recognizing the core strengths of every generation, we can benefit from each other by recognizing and learning:

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