Jim Taggart

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Instant Pudding Learning and Multitasking: A Leadership Challenge


If you’re a young person (in your twenties), what’s your preferred way to learn? How do you engage with older co-workers (mid forties-plus) in the workplace when it comes to learning or asking for advice? Or have you written off older people as has-beens?

If you’re an older Baby Boomer, what have you learned recently from Millennials (Gen Y) or Generation X (ages 38-53)?

How do you interact with younger people at work?

The workplace continues to evolve rapidly, driven by an ageing population, technology, and emerging competing countries through globalization. While unemployment in Canada and the United States is officially low, under-employment is still high and many people have withdrawn from the labour force (according to government survey methodologies). In short, Canada and the U.S. face serious long-term issues on competitiveness and standards of living.

One of the key distinguishing traits of organizations that are adaptive to change and where innovation flourishes is learning and knowledge creation. Lots has been written and spoken about on this topic, yet real progress has been stunted. One of the main barriers to progress has been a workforce that spans four, and soon five, generations, each of which has very different values and approaches to learning and work.

Corporate leaders need to understand both their (Baby Boomer) learning styles and those of Gens X and Y (though it’s important to note that Gen X is steadily taking over the management reins). The multi-tasking learning style of Gen Y, based heavily on digital technology, contrasts sharply with Boomers who still depend on traditional methods, such as hardcopy books, print media and bums-in-chairs classroom learning – where the learner is spoken to and not engaged reciprocally.

 Gen X’s learning style is more or less a hybrid of Boomers and Gen Y; call them conflicted, though they orient themselves more to people interaction than Boomers.

As much as it’s laudatory that Gen Y just wants the bottom line, to get things done through their methods, of specific concern is how they’ll cope in a complex, rapidly changing world. We’re not talking here about the use of technology or Gen Y’s superior ability to network and collaborate, compared to Boomers and Gen X. Rather, it’s about depth of knowledge and understanding.

The ability to understand history and context is crucial for tomorrow’s leaders, whether in business or government. An excellent example is the 2008-09 financial melt-down in the United States.

Very, very few of those involved, in business and government, had any grasp on what led to the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression. America and the global financial system escaped disaster by the skin of its teeth. Older Baby Boomers such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke understood well financial history. The Gen Xers on Wall Street didn’t have a clue.

History matters.

Context matters.

Depth matters.

Instant pudding learning and multitasking don’t cut it in a volatile economy and geo-political world.


The shallowness that accompanies the frivolities of Gen Y’s (and in part Gen X) approach to learning and knowledge creation will undermine their efforts to effectively lead organizations in the 21st Century.

The big challenge of sharing learning and knowledge across a four generational workforce is for people to learn how to understand and respect one another’s approaches to learning. Note the key word – RESPECT, as R&B singer Aretha Franklin sang.

Ranstad USA conducted a survey several years ago to examine the perceptions held by different generations. Three quarters of those 55-plus said they related well to younger co-workers; however, that sentiment was not reciprocated: only 56% stated they related well to older people. And of particular surprise was the finding that 77% of young people did not ask older co-workers for help or advice.

Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation (72 to 85) need to appreciate how their different learning preferences actually possess significant benefits for organizations because of diversity and the different lens through which they see the world.

Younger people have much to gain, however painful as it may appear, from “older” folks. Corporate history matters, especially when learning from past mistakes and blunders. And past successes are equally important.

For older people there’s certainly much we can gain by engaging Gen Y, and not just in the use of digital technology but also in more collaborative approaches to work where trust is key. Baby Boomers have never been big on trust.

Take a moment to share your views or experiences on learning.

I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did. – Yogi Berra

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