June 2014
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The Perfect Storm

Sunday, June 8, 2014
The Perfect Storm

The rise of three in-demand cohorts in the workforce presents a unique development opportunity for these employees and their managers.

For more than a decade, research studies have documented the emergence of a competitive global economy driven by rapid technological progress. The promising drivers of this new economy are, in part, three notable cohort groups: technical professionals, knowledge workers, and Millennials. Their individual and collective competencies have positioned them as the new workforce centerpiece, held in high demand for their technical expertise, knowledge, and entrepreneurial spirit.

To maximize the assets of these cohort groups, training and development professionals and line managers need to understand each group's behavioral characteristics, leadership and motivational needs, and development preferences. Interestingly, although the three groups often are treated separately, they share more commonalities than differences.

First, there is an overlap of positions defined as technical professional and knowledge worker. This turns out to be an advantage because both classifications share similar learning, leading, and developmental preferences. Second, the Millennials referenced in this article are primarily those who are college educated or technically trained. Many of these Millennials also may be described as technical professionals or knowledge workers.

Technical professionals

Definition and representative positions: Technical professionals are highly educated and trained individuals who are described as professional by the type of work they do and the way in which they do it. They have high levels of expertise, special skills, or practical knowledge used in specific fields or professions, gained from ongoing specialized training.

Research suggests that their personality styles, needs, value orientations, and backgrounds are different from other segments of the general workforce. Representative professions include scientists, engineers, information technologists, doctors, accountants, and lawyers.

Behavioral characteristics: It is with caution that I generalize about the behavior of individuals or groups. Nonetheless, there is considerable research and literature that suggests technical professionals expect respect for their personal values, are more loyal to their profession than to their organization, take calculated technical risks, and have a relatively high need for professional growth and a relatively low need for social interaction.

They may appear abrupt in interpersonal communication and need help in managing the flow of information. They value the potential to improve the quality of life and strive for a technical breakthrough.

Leadership and motivational needs: A variety of strategies and tactics are available to effectively lead and motivate technical professionals. They respond to leaders who recognize the need for autonomy, achievement, and professional growth. They want leaders to orchestrate their professional development and coach them for peak performance. They are motivated by leaders who cut away organizational red tape to allow them to focus on project goals. They appreciate leaders who run interference for them.

Developmental preferences: One size does not fit all when identifying technical professionals' developmental preferences. Mary Ann Young Von Glinow makes this point in her book The New Professionals: Managing Today's High-Tech Employees. Her research supports matching organizational incentives (or developmental tactics) to technical professionals' characteristics. She identifies the professional characteristics of technical professionals as expertise, ethics, collegial maintenance of standards, autonomy, commitment to calling, and external referents and identification.

Further, Von Glinow identifies the specific organizational incentives (or developmental preferences) as opportunities for the maintenance and growth of their professional skills over time to avoid obsolescence; developmental counseling in support of career advancement or career-shifting; freedom to select tasks and projects and implement one's own ideas; support to attend professional meetings and research presentations; alternative promotional ladders that allow them to remain in their specialties; and opportunities for peer or group evaluation and appraisals.

Knowledge workers

Definition and representative positions: Knowledge workers are highly skilled, highly educated people who "think for a living" and sell their knowledge rather than (or as well as) products.

They add value through their ideas, analyses, judgment, syntheses, and designs. The primary task of a knowledge worker is nonroutine problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking. Interestingly, about 60 percent of all jobs are knowledge-based. Representative positions may include software engineers, doctors, architects, engineers, scientists, public accountants, lawyers, financial analysts, and teachers.

Behavioral characteristics: Knowledge workers are described as highly educated, autonomous, and career-oriented with strong professional ties. They are at times described as difficult to manage, perhaps because they usually do not work in a linear way and it is difficult to follow their progress.

The work of knowledge workers cannot be observed or directly controlled. Their behaviors, as described by Christina Evans in Managing for Knowledge: HR's Strategic Role, include having a holistic view of self and the broader world within which they operate; a strong sense of purpose; and a passion for what they do and create. They demonstrate a willingness to work collaboratively, with a tolerance for uncertainty and risk-taking. And, finally, they seek out opportunities to network and to build connections inside and outside the organization.

Leadership and motivational needs: The motivational needs of knowledge workers are met with a leadership style that provides opportunities for self-management, autonomy, and control. A sense of self-management provides knowledge workers with psychic income that enhances their work lives. And the need for autonomy and control are extensions of their behavioral characteristics.

Other characteristics of effective leadership that meet their motivational needs include minimal rules and restrictions, open communication, participatory management and decision making, and opportunities for job change and career advancement.

Developmental preferences: Knowledge workers have unique developmental preferences. They embrace communities of practice where a group of professionals participate in a common pursuit of solutions.

Knowledge workers demand that knowledge be continually replenished. They value and seek learning events that are exclusive, and respect those whom they regard as having wider experience. They prefer to develop leadership skills from other leaders with proven competencies rather than attend generic training courses. Finally, they prefer developmental opportunities that are linked to strategic priorities, such as informal learning, attending conferences, mentoring programs, and opportunities to learn together.



Definition and representative positions: As defined by the Pew Research Center, Millennials are those individuals born after 1980, which means adults in this generation are currently 18 to 34 years old. College-educated and technically trained Millennials hold positions similar to technical professionals and knowledge workers—information technologists, engineers, and accountants. Those who have completed graduate programs and residencies are now emerging as physicians and attorneys.

Behavioral characteristics: Dozens of books, including my own, Motivating the Millennial Knowledge Worker, describe the behaviors and work styles of these "colorful children" who recently arrived in the workforce in significant numbers. Whether described as Generation Y, Echo Boomers, or the Trophy Generation, their characteristics include the following.

They are optimistic, morally and socially aware, globally conscious, and civic institution builders. They also are bright, ambitious, collaborative, and high achievers with potential for heroism. They are entrepreneurial with a desire to shape their own destiny, and they thrive on challenge and creative flexibility in doing work. Millennials stretch the comfort zone of managers and organizations with emphasis on mobility, and their relationship with their manager is critical to their success.

Leadership and motivational needs: Millennials blend elements of play, learning, and work. This integrated 24/7 behavior influences their motivational and developmental preferences. Millennials want flexibility and work-life balance, multidimensional growth opportunities (these are non-negotiable requirements), and a working environment characterized by fun and social interaction. Like knowledge workers and technical professionals, they require purpose, challenging work, and the need to be recognized for their contributions (the three R's of recognition, reward, and respect). They are communicators who seek opportunities for learning, training, and access to new technology.

Developmental preferences: Millennials are passionate consumers of education, training, and development opportunities. Their appetite for relevant learning opportunities can be satisfied by managing their own knowledge and development portfolio, and receiving continuous, just-in-time opportunities to learn and grow.

As digital natives they are most comfortable with technology-mediated methods of learning. As self-directed professionals they seek learning and development opportunities that will advance their career. This includes interest in career-related programs and graduate school or degree preparation. Not surprisingly, they expect 24/7 access to learning and development opportunities as well as to their instructors and managers.

Moving forward

Professional development is a shared responsibility of employee, managers and leaders, and the organization. As partners in learning and performance, each stakeholder has a responsibility to identify, promote, support, and implement a continuum of relevant developmental opportunities.

Each of the three cohort groups—technical professionals, knowledge workers, and Millennials—seeks developmental opportunities to increase their professional and technical knowledge and to avoid obsolescence. All three groups prefer learning opportunities and mentoring programs that are linked to strategic organizational priorities. They appreciate on-the-job sponsored learning and development, and they profit from informal and formal learning opportunities. They enjoy a common pursuit of solutions through communities of practice and opportunities to learn together.

With a better understanding of each group's behavioral characteristics, training and development professionals and line managers can provide continuous and just-in-time opportunities tailored to each group's developmental preferences.

About the Author

Donald Shandler is president of Shandler Associates, a consulting firm specializing in the development of managers, leaders, and professionals. He also is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College where he teaches the MBA course Managing People and Groups in a Global Workplace.

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