Exit Boomers, Enter Millennials

Clemson undergraduates study the factors that facilitate the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next in the workplace.

Exit Bloomers Enter Millenials


MEMBERS OF THE BABY BOOM GENERATION, which encompasses the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, are beginning to enter retirement. That leaves companies with a problem: How will they ensure that the knowledge of their most experienced veterans is passed down to incoming millennial employees? Siemens, a global manufacturing firm, has taken this question straight to a group of students at Clemson University’s College of Business in South Carolina.

Kevin Yates, leader of Siemens’ energy management division in the United States and Canada—as well as a 1994 Clemson graduate—was the one who decided to bring the real-world challenge to Clemson’s Creative Inquiry program. Coordinated by the university’s Watt Family Innovation Center, creative inquiries involve small groups of students spending a semester or more working on independent research projects under the supervision of faculty mentors.

In spring of 2017, assistant marketing professor Anastasia Thyroff and associate marketing professor Jennifer Siemens (no relation to the company) were tapped to recruit six students for this investigation of generational knowledge transfer. The topic was a timely one, Thyroff points out. According to a Pew Research Center study examining population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 74.9 million baby boomers (51 to 69 years old) lived in the U.S. as of 2015, compared to 75.4 million millennials (18 to 34 years old). “The whole country is going to go through this,” she says.

The students’ research revolved around three questions: First, what is the most effective way to transfer knowledge between seasoned and novice employees? Second, how can an organization implement this transfer across all of its divisions? Finally, what is the role of technology in this knowledge transition?

Students spent the first half of the semester learning to carry out marketing research, conduct interviews, run focus groups, and conduct ethnographic research. During the second half of the semester, students each identified someone from their personal networks who had either gone through a recent job transition or who was a recent retiree; they then traded names to interview each other’s contacts.

These initial interviews prepared the students to conduct focus groups with Siemens employees over the summer, when they interviewed 41 Siemens employees who each had either less than five years or more than ten years of experience with the company.

Two members of the team were able to take an even closer look at the company. Siemens offered summer internships to seniors Tanner Parsons and Helen McDowell. McDowell worked in Siemens’ marketing department head-quarters in Atlanta, where she collected broad data about the company. Parsons worked at a branch office in Tampa, Florida, where he observed the organic relationships that had developed among a group of seasoned sales engineers.

When students returned in the fall, they compiled the transcripts from their interviews with data collected by Parsons and McDowell into a 600-page document, which they analyzed for key words and themes. Last December, they presented their findings to 20 executives at Siemens’ U.S. headquarters for energy management in Atlanta.

Among the students’ recommendations? Hold social gatherings that encourage new hires and seasoned employees to socialize; treat interns like full-time employees to encourage loyalty to the company; and eliminate cubicles in favor of more open office environments.

These changes would facilitate organic mentorships, with mentors passing on knowledge to their younger counterparts—knowledge that can’t always be typed up in a document.

“It’s not as much about practical knowledge as it is about the tribal knowledge that these senior employees have from being here from ten to even 40-plus years,” says Cris Higgins, head of human resources for Siemens’ energy management, mobility, and building technology divisions. “I myself have over 20 years’ experience, and trying to pass that knowledge on to another HR person is not accomplished with a one-time meeting. Not only do you have to transfer knowledge, you transfer your networking, you transfer your relationships, you transfer your know-how about how to get things done.”

Yates views this student research project as “a model to closely look at across the rest of Siemens throughout the U.S.” In fact, the work by these six students was only the first phase of what will be a three-year project for the company. This year, Thyroff and Siemens will assemble the next research team, who will build on the first group’s findings.