April 2012
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TD Magazine

Tamara J. Erickson

Monday, April 9, 2012

Founder and CEO
Tammy Erickson Associates
Carlisle, Massachusetts


Tamara J. Erickson is an expert on organizations and the changing workforce. Her work is based on extensive research on changing demographics and employee values and, most recently, on how successful organizations can innovate through collaboration and change their traditional economic base to incorporate new social technologies.

In 2009 and 2011, Erickson was named one of the 50 most influential living management thinkers in the world by Thinkers 50. She is the co-author of Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent, and describes how specific generations can excel in today's workplace in her trilogy of books, Retire Retirement, What's Next, Gen X? and Plugged In.

Erickson holds a BA in biological sciences from the University of Chicago and an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. She has served on the Board of Directors of PerkinElmer Inc. and Allergan Inc., both Fortune 500 corporations.

How did you initially become interested in demographic trends and the changing workforce?

I've always been fascinated by why people do extraordinary things. I majored in biochemistry in college, and my early work began with studying innovations. From there, it was a fairly seamless transition to understanding why people become engaged with work, what they want from work, why different people care about different things in the workplace, and how that has changed over time.

My specific focus on the generations, however, began when I attended a conference where Ken Dychtwald was speaking. (Ken was a co-author of the first book that I wrote on the workforce.) He was talking about the impact that generational preferences had on consumer behavior, and one of the audience members said: "Well, that's great. But what impact do they have on work behavior?" Ken explained that he hadn't studied this topic ... and so began our partnership.

Ken, another colleague, and I did a lot of research on how the generations viewed work, which led to the publication of Workforce Crisis. After that, I was hooked and continued to research, looking very deeply at what different generations wanted from work and what companies could do to attract employees from different generations.

How are generational values shifting in the 2012 workplace, and how can employers effectively engage employees today?

Meaning is becoming the new money. In other words, being able to offer a meaningful work experience is becoming as important, if not more important, for most people than the amount of money that one is paid.

The values of the two older generations in today's workplace—the Traditionalists and Boomers—although different, both align well with our existing corporate practices. For example, Traditionalists have tremendous respect for positional authority. They've followed the rules of the organization and have wanted to move into higher positions of authority. Boomers care deeply about winning. They grew up in a world that was too small—there were too many of them for the positions available—and so the idea of staying ahead in a highly competitive world is one that is deeply ingrained in their psyche. Again, corporate practices in which advancement is based on recognition of higher titles or greater compensation aligns very well with the Boomer value system.

But some of the younger generations—Gen X, which I define as people loosely in their 30s and 40s today, and Gen Y, people age 30 and under—have very different values. Gen Xers grew up not trusting institutional relationships, and don't necessarily fit well with traditional expectations around organization loyalty or conventional career paths. They're much more interested in choosing their own career paths and having skill sets that will enable them to maintain multiple options in the workforce. Gen Ys grew up during a time that was marked by random events such as terrorism. They greatly value the ability to live each day to the fullest, to not necessarily defer gratification or be in an environment where long-term dues-paying is expected.

For employers to reach both Gen X and Gen Y, articulating the meaning inherent in the work you're asking them to do becomes very important—much more so than paying their salaries or offering a "competitive workplace." The real above-and-beyond differentiator is the meaning that the organization can provide. In the past organizations have focused on adopting best practices to engage employees—figuring out the best way to do performance management or compensation, for example. My advice is that organizations instead focus on what it is that makes them unique, emphasize that uniqueness, and craft employee experiences to reflect those values.

You are an expert on innovation and collaboration in the workplace. How can successful organizations innovate through collaboration?

I think the only way to truly innovate is through collaboration. Innovation is fundamentally the combination of two previously unrelated ideas. To ensure a sustainable innovative environment, you have to create what I like to call collaborative capacity—the space within your organization for different people to bring different ideas together.

There are several ways that an organization can create collaborative capacity. Leaders can build an infrastructure that will allow people to share ideas by joining individuals with different technical skills, creating forums where those with multiple perspectives can have conversations, and establishing norms in the organization that encourage employees from a variety of backgrounds to interact regularly.

However, merely creating collaborative capacity isn't enough. It doesn't do any good for employees to talk to one another if all of them have the same experiences and backgrounds. As a leader, you must ensure that there's a diversity of capability and perspective present so that when you have these kinds of collaborative conversations, you actually are bringing new ideas together.

Another important responsibility is for leaders to ask great questions. A leader who says, "I insist that you collaborate; I demand that you innovate," only stymies innovation in an organization. But a leader who asks a really interesting question—one that you and I would want to ponder—will encourage people to join in a collaborative discussion. A leader's job is not to set targets, goals, or mandates around innovation; a leader's job is to intrigue people, to ask the questions that will motivate them to participate in a collaborative and, therefore, innovative process.

Recently you conducted research on the implications of social enterprise software on the way that we work. What can you share about your findings?

Social enterprise software will eventually reshape the idea of employment—that we must have a permanent set of individuals attached to the organization. In many ways this goes back to the notion of transaction cost—that the cost of getting a new employee is greater than the cost of retraining an existing employee to do a different task—which has caused us to focus on retaining employees even if they do not have the skills needed for the tasks at hand.


Over time, as it brings down the cost of finding the best person to do a job, enterprise social software will create more contingent labor. The idea that people will have established careers in one place and move from one task to another within a corporation will give way to the reality that individuals will complete tasks for multiple organizations when those organizations need the specialized skills that each person brings.

What has your work developing executive education taught you about leaders in today's workplace?

Smart executives realize that what they know today isn't going to be sufficient to keep them on the leading edge tomorrow. Whether it's at a corporate or individual level, there's a growing interest in continuing to learn and develop new skills and perspectives.

Providing these opportunities to learn is becoming one of the best perks that a company can offer. Being an organization where a leader can gain additional skills is a very compelling draw for people today and one that—whether you're talking about very young leaders or seasoned executives—is of extreme value.

Are you working on any new books or special projects?

I'm working on two projects that I hope will form the foundation for books that I plan to write later this year. The first is research that I'm conducting on the next generation. I think that people who are roughly under the age of 16 will not be members of Gen Y, but will be quite different because they have grown up heavily influenced by the kinds of resource constraints that were prevalent during the last three to four years. As children, they went to movies about icecaps that are melting and have been exposed through their school curriculum to issues around water and energy shortages, carbon impacts on the ozone layers, and so forth. And they have grown up with the global final recession serving as a backdrop to their parents' conversations. This is a generation that will be much more shaped by the finiteness of our financial, environmental, and global resources than any generation preceding it. My suggestion is that we call them the "Re-Generation" because I find them very focused on how to reclaim or renew the resources around us.

I am loosely calling my second project the "intelligent organization," for which I'm exploring the assumptions that are deeply embedded in the way we do things in the workplace today. I have found that there are many corporate practices that we continue to do only because we've always done them that way. When we begin to peel back the layers and explore why we do these practices, we uncover assumptions that many would probably agree no longer apply. For example, tenure: This idea made a lot of sense 50 years ago when retaining employees for a long period of time was a high priority. Additionally, vacation based on tenure—why would we link one's amount of vacation time to how long she has been with a company? The project examines these kinds of practices and their underlying assumptions, and then presents issues regarding how the organization of the future should look in light of this analysis.

What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?

I live on a small farm in Massachusetts, so I like to do things related to the farm. For example, my son and his significant other have an organic vegetable garden, and I like to work with them. I'm always surrounded by a pack of dogs—some rescued and some that are show dogs. I also ride and breed horses. Basically, I enjoy spending time outdoors, working on the farm, and being with my animals.

About the Author

Ann Parker is Associate Director, Talent Leader Consortiums at ATD. In this role she drives strategy, product development, and content acquisition for ATD’s senior leader and executive audience. She also oversees business development and program management for ATD's senior leader consortiums, CTDO Next and ATD Forum.

Ann began her tenure at ATD in an editorial capacity, primarily writing for TD magazine as Senior Writer/Editor. In this role she had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession's content. She then became a Senior Content Manager for Senior Leaders & Executives, focusing on content and product development for the talent executive audience, before moving into her current role.

Ann is a native Pennsylvanian where she currently resides, marathoner, avid writer, baker and eater of sweets, wife to an Ironman, and mother of two.

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