I was recently briefing senior leaders of a large global enterprise that wants to become more collaborative. They described a common observation: some younger team members are far more collaborative than their older colleagues. The age question constantly comes up—either directly or indirectly—whether I’m briefing senior leaders, working in the trenches of organizations, or speaking to groups. So, it’s time to devote some of this space to exploring age and collaboration.
Collaboration is by no means new. However, broad consciousness for collaboration and effective tools to support collaborative culture are relatively recent. Collaboration has been a critical success factor for centuries in everything from fighting wars to writing songs. Also, some venerable organizations were built with a collaborative culture from the ground up. The Mayo Clinic is a great example. At the turn of the last century, Mayo was more collaborative than most companies are today. For the first decade, the Mayo brothers performed surgery together, each doctor trading off as the other’s first assistant. The Mayos assembled a cross-functional team of doctors, laboratory experts, business people and communications specialists.
Since collaboration has been around for awhile, clearly there are plenty of older people who get collaboration. As a society, we must be careful in using the initiative du jour—whether it’s collaboration or something else—to divide people based on age. After all, how collaborative is that? Rather than using collaboration as an excuse to put older workers out to pasture, many organizations should consider how collaboration can unite generations of team members by breaking down barriers.
Many of the perceptions that older people don’t collaborate have more to do with tools than collaboration per se. People in their 20’s often prefer the immediacy of instant messaging over the relative formality of email, while many people in their 40’s have perceived IM as more of a “communicate with the kids” tool. Their perception is evolving, however, and many are embracing presence-enabled tools including IM, web conferencing and videoconferencing as ways to reach people across functions and regions, collaborate on the fly, and get things done.
There is also a perception that people in their 20’s know instinctively how to collaborate. This notion is often based on the perceived comfort level of younger people with collaborative tools. However, the assumption may preclude younger people from getting necessary training and participating in a culture shift towards collaboration.
Age is by no means the most significant obstacle to collaboration in organizations. Some larger issues are internal competition, star culture and unnecessary manifestations of hierarchy. And there are people who unnecessarily compete with colleagues across the age spectrum.
Focusing on age may short circuit collaboration initiatives by ostracizing older team members—people with knowledge, skills and perspective that cross-functional teams require. If we perceive that older team members are resisting collaborative culture, we must first analyze if the issue is collaboration itself or using collaboration tools. These issues involve different remedies, rewards and training approaches to help people, regardless of age, become more collaborative.