Generational Learning: What is the Impact on the Purchasing Profession?

Bill McAneny, acclaimed author of the best-selling book ‘Frankenstein’s Manager’ which outlines why management training does not lead to better-performing managers, has embarked on writing a series on the way different generations learn, and its impact on the make-up of the changing workforce.

In terms of procurement and supply management, this has significant consequences in that more graduating students have chosen the profession as a career and are therefore going to redefine the landscape in key areas including the RFP process, contract negotiation and risk management.

Leading up to the October 26th, 2010 live interview with Bill McAneny on the PI Window on Business Show, we will be posting a series of articles in the Contracting Intelligence Blog by the author, and would invite your comments on what is bound to be a timely and controversial topic.


The Baby-Boomer Generation those born in the post-war period between 1945 and 1964 tends to typify the ‘traditional learning’ phase. This period saw huge rises in employment opportunities, a generation of traditional, hard-working people who accepted that ‘training’ was primarily didactic, driven by the prevailing culture, expectations and teaching media. This meant one-way communication, ‘talk and chalk’ sessions with the tutor as ‘expert’ and the emphasis on ‘training,’ ie a passive approach, something that was ‘done to’ people, rather than ‘learning,’ which is a proactive activity.

The learning studies and models reflected these values and produced the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Model, the Kolb Model etc. Consider some of the questions on the LSQ: “I often throw caution to the wind,” “I don’t believe in wasting time by beating around the bush,” and the classic “Quiet, thoughtful people make me feel uneasy.”

Generation X

Generation X is the ‘latch-key’ generation, born between 1964 and 1980 into a society with lower birth-rates, rising divorce rates, faltering economies and less economic security. Fewer in numbers than both the previous and succeeding generations they are the first generation which saw mothers going out to work in large numbers, creating two income families. They therefore tend value independence, have less faith in economic institutions and a mistrust of authority, they work to live rather than live to work and so independence and work life balance are important. In France called Generation ‘Bof’ which means ‘Generation Whatever.’ These were also the first generation to grow up with computers and the first to mark the shift from manufacturing economy to a service economy. Gen Xers learn best through independent study, technological aides, they value instant feedback and need to see the relevance of the subject matter, what will it do for me? They also prefer to solve problems for themselves rather than rely on someone to show them

The learning studies and models once again reflected the generation and produced Knowles Andragogy Theory, Senge’s ‘Fifth Discipline’ and Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.

Generation Y

Generation Y, are those born between 1980 and 1996, and are often referred to as the digital generation, or ‘learning 2.0’ This generation have a need for immediacy, 24/7 culture, no tolerance for delays and are technologically very savvy. Being the Nintendo generation they have a low boredom threshold, prefer a ‘trial and error’ approach to problem solving, they dip in and out, parallel process, snack, multi-task, skim and power browse. This generation are at odds with traditional delivery and work best with collaborative learning as they value interaction, being connected, discussing, listening to others. They do however have a constructivist approach, a need to construct own meanings, not passively accepting or absorbing, and want to both ‘take’ learning and ‘giver back,’ c. f. Wikis. By 2014 will make up almost half the workforce and already in the US there are 88 million Gen Ys to 50 million Gen Xs so this group are in the ascendancy, (in India for example they make up more than one half of the over one billion population).

A recent article in the Economist stated: “It is becoming commonplace for a cafe to be full of people … more engaged with their in-box than with the people touching their elbows. These places are physically inhabited but psychologically evacuated.”

Yet we still take young, bright 20-somethings, value their fresh, youthful approach and then take them to learning rather than bringing the learning to them. There is also a historical trend to knock the current generation but I have noticed a creeping sense of déjà vu where many commentators are of the view that they way this current generation learns will be bad for them, and bad for society. Nicholas Carr has followed up his article ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?’ with a book called ‘The Shallows’ in which he argues: “The internet…plays havoc with our ability to see anything through to the end. This is sad because our brains are malleable, still works in progress, moulded by external stimuli.”

At the same time a UCL report states: “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense, indeed there are signs that new forms of `reading’ are emerging as users `power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” It also says students are “…hungry for highly digested content.”

What worries me here is that the inference being drawn is that this is a bad thing and in my view it is too easy to see “different” as “worse.” Yet maybe, from an evolutionary standpoint, this new way of learning will better equip the new generation for a world in which everything is speeding up and where change is a constant. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t now have time for traditional, more linear learning and that the old ways will not equip the new generation for future challenges. So rather than make us ‘worse’ the new learning modes just might make us ‘better,’ and certainly more relevant. So rather than fit the learners around outmoded and less appropriate learning media maybe our industry needs to see the learner as consumer and offer a wider range of options, as different people want to consume learning in different ways?

Google CEO Eric Schmidt says “The more pieces of information we can ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.” And consider the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.” So rather than make the assumption that ‘how I learned’ is the best way maybe we need to allow this generation to dip in and out, parallel process, snack, multi-task, pre-digest skim and power browse; it might just save us all.

Generation Z – a glimpse into the near future

Generation Z, those born after 1994, will hit the job market in 3-4 years time. So let’s take an initial look at how they differ from Gen Y, and this might mean for how we recruit, manage, motivate, reward and develop this next wave?

Gen Y’ers remember life before the proliferation of mass technology, while Gen Z are often referred to as the ‘digital natives,’ an introverted generation, with a lower attention span. They are more individualistic, self-absorbed and less team oriented with less well-developed verbal communication as much of their communication takes place individually, online and in ‘shorthand.’ As this is the Google generation who take for granted that information is ‘out there,’ immediate and free, they tend to be impatient and expect instant results. They form huge communities and a constant communication loop with people they have never met, and never will meet; sociable and collaborative online but less well able to develop personal relationships.

Once again, I would encourage you to visit the Comprehensive Intelligence In-Depth Blog to gain access to additional resources and reference material.


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