Think back to a coloring book and that array of crayons standing at attention in a 64-count crayon box. OK, begin to color. Is the coloring precise and within the lines, or outside the borders of the picture?

The result may be a clue to one's generation, with baby boomers being the careful colorists and the Gen Yers coloring outside the borders to match their out-of-the-box thinking.

These are generalizations about the generations. But understanding the differences, especially how each generation learns differently, is crucial to companies attempting to capture the knowledge of retiring baby boomers and pass it down to Generations X and Y.

Passing knowledge on

This idea is central to a new book, "Surviving the Baby Boomer Exodus: Capturing Knowledge for Gen X and Y Employees," written by Ken Ball of Oakland and Gina Gotsill of Concord. Ball, a baby boomer, and Gotsill, a Gen Xer, both work for TechProse, a consulting firm in Walnut Creek.

One statistic, Gotsill said, shows that 50 percent of baby boomers will be leaving the workforce in five years. The trend is top of mind for some executives, as Robert Half International discovered when it surveyed 150 senior executives from the largest U.S. firms in 2008.

They rated "the trends that would most significantly alter the workforce over the next decade." The top trend, at 47 percent, was baby boomer retirements.

"Some industries have a greater demographic of senior people and some of these aren't doing anything about it," said Ball, citing oil and gas, utilities, manufacturing, public administration, education and some aspects of health care with more mature work forces.

When companies do recognize that they need to establish knowledge transfer programs, they often do so just to capture the knowledge across an organization for operational reasons, Gotsill noted. But the authors point out another significant reason for starting such a program: competitive advantage.

At Gotsill's and Ball's own employer, TechProse, they got to see knowledge transfer in action when Meryl Natchez, founder and chief executive officer, tapped Gotsill to learn portions of her job.

"Meryl Natchez certainly understood the business case," Gotsill explained. "She started planning her retirement several years ago. She hired me to take over her job that had to do with writing and knowing where documents were located, like on a server. It's very important to know where these (documents) are to support the salespeople."

It took about 18 months for Natchez to pass down the appropriate knowledge to Gotsill.

The authors explain generational differences which, if not taken into consideration, can hinder knowledge transfer. Think again about the coloring books.

Generational learning

Baby boomers generally feel most comfortable with a highly structured learning environment, the authors note, so lectures might be the right choice when new topics are introduced.

In a 2001 study by B. Bova and M. Kroth, Gen Xers were found to prefer "action learning" -- learning by doing. Gen Yers also prefer to learn by doing and, with their high level of comfort with new technology, will likely respond best to training that's on demand versus training set up for a fixed time and date.

In one example of successful knowledge transfer, the authors cite an East Coast transit agency which developed a type of "mentor-in-a-pocket," training videos for handheld devices.

The videos featured experienced technicians and how they approached technical challenges on the job. New hires used the devices when doing repairs, offering them knowledge in a format to which they were accustomed.

The authors note that not every type of knowledge needs to be passed down within organizations; this is part of the research process that companies must undergo.

"One thing we found is that the culture is so important. You've got to have executive buy-in for this type of program," said Ball, who added that mentoring, for example, will work well in one culture but may not be the best choice in another.

Social networking worked well at travel industry company, Sabre Holdings, which created an online community called SabreTown.

The social network aimed to make the company's employees, spread around the world, feel more connected, Gotsill explained. When the company headquarters was hosting potential clients from Italy, a question was posed to the network asking if anyone knew how to speak Italian. Hiring an outside translator would have cost $3,000.

"They found an employee who did speak Italian and had lived in Italy, so he had the cultural sensitivity someone else might not have had, and they ended up getting the business. So this is an example of a business-related need (being met through the network) and it also engaged the employee on another level," Gotsill said.

Learning a two-way street

The authors conducted about 100 interviews for the book, which took nine months to complete. "It was hard work. I'm an early riser so I did a lot of writing in the wee hours when others are sleeping," Gotsill said.

The pair landed the deal from Ball's connections in the book industry after he had written a related article for a trade magazine for business continuity planners.

Looking back, they were surprised at some of their findings.

"We started with this notion that boomers have all this great knowledge to hand down. But we found out that knowledge is multidirectional -- that Gen X and Y can also impart knowledge to the boomers. So it is really valuing knowledge from wherever it comes," Ball said.

"I was (surprised) to find out how influential my generation (Gen X) was in shaping today's workplaces," Gotsill said. "Gen X is a much smaller group than the boomers, but we are the force behind the concept of work-life balance.

"Boomers and their parents (the generation known as the Veterans) didn't talk much about work-life balance. Gen X entered the workforce and pushed for change."

The 270-page book is published by Course Technology, a part of Cengage Learning. It is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, and Borders Books and Music.

through the years
  • Silent Generation or Veterans Generation, born 1925-1945
  • Baby Boomers, 1946-1964
  • Generation X, 1965-1979
  • Generation Y (also known as Millennials), 1980-1995