Older Workers? Help Them Adapt

Use these four steps to get your most senior employees comfortable with technological shifts.

An executive friend of mine is often frustrated with the generation of workers who make up a big chunk of his team.

Before you leap to judgment, understand that he's not whining about Millennials, or Gen Y, or even Gen X. His complaints are with a group he calls "the last generation"--as in "the last generation still in the workforce." You might know them as baby boomers, although truthfully, he could be talking about many workers over the age of 40.

In his words:

These people have almost impossible-to-replace experience and insight, but they are not adopting the new sales technology, field tools and systems. That means they are not integrated into our overall market approach, and they are killing my performance.

One of my friends, Tricia Emerson, co-wrote a book (called The Change Book) on overcoming the resistance to change. Here are some suggestions she passed on to me for companies trying to get older workers to adapt to technological changes.

1. Identify the Problems

Dissatisfaction drives change. So listen to your older workers, and identify their recent complaints: "I can't easily track my sales leads." "I can't get hold of my sales assistant." "I can't get good information on my inventory." "I've got a lot to lug around."

Then, demonstrate clearly how new technology will solve some of their problems.

When people see change coming, one of their first questions will be "What's in it for me?" Have some answers ready: The new customer relationship management (or CRM) system will help your sales guy track his leads more effectively; instant messaging will help him contact his assistant easily; the mobile app will give him access to real-time inventory data; the iPad can show a live-motion rendering of the latest tool-die machinery and eliminate the need for lots of brochures and a projector.

2. Use Carrot & Stick

People tend to be consequence-driven. Make clear the personal and business consequences of not embracing the new technology. Ground your examples in harsh reality: Show your sales lead what she stands to lose in dollars if she doesn't use her iPad to check inventory and ends up overpromising and underdelivering. Or show the nurse the impact of failing to log the patient's latest vitals.

But along with the negative consequences of not participating, explain the upside of joining in. Demonstrate how new technology users come out on top. Showcase and reward those who are using the tools successfully. Describe bottom-line impact or improved customer partnerships. Most powerfully, use face-to-face interaction and testimonials from early adopters to lend credibility to the change. A real-life story from a colleague about how the new CRM system has helped is much more persuasive than a company-wide message listing the tool's benefits.

3. Keep It Real

Make the communications and training programs simple and real. Understand how your boomer employees listen and learn best, and then use language and stories that will resonate.

Any canned process or training documentation from your vendor is likely geared to the tech-savvy. Engineers often design with themselves in mind and think everything is "intuitive." For the record: It's not.

Relate new information to the old and familiar. For example, compare IM to yelling over the cubicle wall to a colleague. Same result--new tool. All messages about the new tools should be simple, real, personal, and right for your organization.

4. Provide Support

Don't expect high adoption rates if you introduce new technology and then cut and run. Training is only the first step in helping your older workers learn. (Remember: Training is an event, but learning is a process.)

Provide ongoing support to guide people toward the goal. Use online demonstrations, online tutorials, an easy-to-reach help desk, and help forums. Build experts within your teams, so knowledge and enthusiasm can spread organically. Be proactive with those who might need more help, and meet their needs through scheduled help sessions or a buddy system.

And don't forget to remind them of the former challenges and frustrations that are now fading away.

To some, new technology can feel like more of a burden than a benefit. But if the employees resisting change include your most valuable team members, you need to make sure the "last generation" isn't a "lost generation" for your organization. Their professional growth is your business growth.

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