IT is bridging the generation gap, one app at a time

IT leaders outline different strategies for supporting tech needs of younger employees

ORLANDO -- Some IT leaders are bridging the generation gap in their companies by revamping older applications with snazzier user interfaces and by creating new communication platforms that include the best of all the ages.

Baby boomers and later generations of employees prefer different means of communication, the thinking goes. The boomers go for e-mail while the younger folks are much more comfortable with instant messaging and social networking. To foster broad collaboration throughout the company, IT managers say the idea is to give employees whatever tools they will actually use -- and seek out -- to get their jobs done.

"It's our job to manage the customer experience -- Gen X, baby boomer, whatever," said Yuri Aguiar, chief technology officer at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference here this week.

By 2012, those born between 1977 and 1994 -- what some call the "Echo Generation" -- will make up one-third of the U.S. population, he said. "Are we ready for them? They're the technology generation -- they're very happy to put personal information out there, on social networks and the like. It's very good for collaboration but not so good from a security perspective," he added

One thing the New York-based advertising agency is doing to get ready for those workers is revamping some of its older applications to better appeal to, and be more readily usable by, younger employees. For example, Ogilvy took a 10-year-old application, which was "really klunky but had solid data beneath it," and created an alternative user interface, Aguiar said. People can choose which UI to use, he added.

"This created some overhead on IT -- we had to support both -- but it was easier to support two UIs than it would have been to support two applications," Aguiar said.

Likewise, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., a railroad company based in Fort Worth, Texas, recently revamped a 20-year-old, mainframe-based train-scheduling system that was originally written in the Natural fourth generation programming language. "A new generation of people was coming in and asking, 'Hey, where's the mouse and what's up with the green screen?'" said CIO Jo-ann Olsovsky.

Because the train scheduling application is so critical to the railroad's operations, it was easier to create a new graphical front end than it would have been to rewrite the entire thing. The new Excel front end has simplified the learning curve for new hires, Olsovsky said. The plan is to create newer front-ends to other major legacy applications, she added.

Deloitte Services LP, a New York-based accounting firm, is taking multigenerational support even further by creating an all-encompassing communications platform offering users just about every possible means of collaboration. "IT organizations have a challenge to be as inclusive as possible," said CIO Jerome Oglesby.

Some 40% of Deloitte's 165,000 employees are part of Generation Y, and the average age of a Deloitte employee is 28. "We made a promise to support the way they work and provide anywhere, anytime, access for global collaboration," Oglesby said. It's particularly important for employees to feel connected to their co-workers when they're on a client engagement that can last several months or even longer.

With those goals in mind, the company created DeloitteNet 2.0, which includes instant messaging, webconferencing, a Facebook-like social network, real-time collaboration, a whiteboard, workspaces and more -- in addition to voice mail and e-mail. But now everyone gets voice mail on their mobile phones, too. The idea is to let the end user drive his own experience instead of force-fitting something that may not feel comfortable.

"Without these technologies, you run the risk of depleting the workforce and losing the war for talent," Oglesby said. "You have to do it, or they'll do it without you. If you don't give them the tools they want and need, you'll have all these skunk works going on around you."

BNSF, the railroad, is rolling out a similar all-encompassing communications system that includes desktop video, e-mail and voice mail. In this case, however, it's more about trying to connect the railway's far-flung employees, who are just as likely to be on a train or fixing a microwave tower out in the field as they are to be in the office.

It was time to replace the aging PBX-based voice mail system anyway. "It died a few months ago and I had to go on eBay to get the parts," Olsovsky said, "and no, I'm sorry to say that's not a joke."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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