Millennials Won’t Change Work; Work Will Change Millennials – Really?

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo & Surroundings in the SpringDo you really think so? I mean, *really*? Interesting reflection that one from my good friend, the always insightful, Andy McAfee, over at Harvard Business Review, under the same title as this blog post, where he comes to conclude that "today’s workplaces will change Generation Y more than the reverse". Rather interesting conclusion to which I would have to wholeheartedly disagree with, I am afraid. Work(place) doesn’t change people, nor their habits; it’s people themselves the ones who change, consistently, and for decades! other people. But not work.

Let’s get some more background in here for a minute… Let us not talk about generations nor the generational divide (Specially, since most folks out there don’t believe in it anyway), but instead let’s talk about different styles of working, i.e. different styles of knowledge workers interacting with one another based on how they have grown digitally over the course of decades. That’s been the new reality of the workplace over the last few years. Wonderful articles like Rawn Shah‘s "Why You Must Network With Your Younger Employees" will certainly provide some very good and interesting insights on what lies ahead for most of us, as the youngest of those generations is starting to enter the workplace already (Yes, that Generation Y ;-) heh). Go and have a look, read further on from that article, then come back.

Ok, after reading that piece, here is what Andy has got to say about work today:

"[...] we still have org charts that mean something, jobs with narrowly defined responsibilities, promotions, bosses and subordinates, and most of the other longstanding trappings of organizational life.

We also still have office politics and intrigue, careerism, coalitions and rivalries, informal structures and processes, and all the other elements of a dense and hierarchical social system"

Rather fascinating, don’t you think? Well, I am not sure what you folks would think about it, but, to me, that’s *not* work! That’s actually everything that’s behind, built on top, under, next to work, but it’s got nothing to do with it altogether. So I can’t imagine how work is going to change millennials. To be honest, I don’t think it would happen. Quite the opposite. I do believe that millennials, better said, a millenial working style will surely transform and shape how we conduct business at work today, as Rawn already hinted on that article I referenced above briefly.

To me, work happens around you; the workplace is no longer a physical location where you would go to do your working hours, report to your boss and project team and then back home. To me, work happens around you AND those knowledge workers, across the organisation, you connect and collaborate with in various social networks and communities. Not just traditional organisational structures, like in the past; business work has become a whole lot more complex than that lately, don’t you think?

The Future of the Workplace is a fascinating and hugely intriguing topic, since we all have a go at trying to guess and define what our workplace would be like in 10 to 20 years from now. Over at IBM we are having a go at it as well and have now put together some really good stuff I’m hoping to be sharing with you folks pretty soon, and share my two cents about it, so you can see what it might look like. Interestingly enough none of the characteristics that Andy mentions on that article permeate through that Future of the Workplace initiative, which kind of makes you wonder already…

Quite the opposite!, which means that work won’t change that millennial work style per se. If anything it would be people themselves still wanting to live, and survive!, in that kind of working environment (Yes, I am talking about those hoarders of knowledge for whom "Knowledge Is (still) Power") the ones who would want to keep things as what they have been like for decades. Yet, somehow, I do feel that’s a small minority nowadays, as more and more knowledge workers realise fully how "Knowledge Shared Is (eventually) Power". And as such those social networks and communities will be the ones putting up a fight, a really good one, I hope, against that traditional way of working, because, after all, who would want to spend the next 10, 20 or 20 years working in such environment? I wouldn’t and I still have got those many years of work ahead of me!

My Hippie 2.0 instinct tells me that very few knowledge workers will be looking forward to such kind of knowledge Web work ahead of us. On the contrary, don’t you think those folks would be the ones that would want to provoke such fundamental cultural changes within the workplace and still be able to tell it? I bet they would! In fact, that’s what I’m seeing every day myself at work. Yes, even at such a large corporation as IBM, always seen as archaic, obsolete, strict, rather rigid, hierarchical and stagnant. I know you now may be thinking I am a lucky guy for having the job I have, but then again, if I judge by the hundreds of folks I get to interact with on a regular basis, something tells me I’m no longer the only one. By far!

And why do I know that? Well, mainly because of how profoundly disruptive that millennial working style has been all along, so far, with the wider adoption of social software within the enterprise. I mean, most of you folks are already rather familiar with some of the many values that social networking brings in to the workplace, so do you think that office politics and intrigue, careerism, coalitions and rivalries, that hoarding of knowledge, amongst several other poisonous attitudes, will stand a chance? Right, that’s what I thought so, too! I don’t think so, either!

But, if it happens, I am afraid we would only have to blame ourselves for it. Not work! Because it would be us, knowledge workers, the ones who had been reluctant to change things for the better in the first place, wanting to work AND live the way we have been all along (Again, Andy’s description of today’s workplace is pretty much the same one that has gotten us all go through one of the worst and most severe financial crises ever…), instead of looking forward, working really hard, to a workplace where openness, transparency, fairness, trust, healthy and nurturing personal business relationships will dominate.

We have got a lot to win, but we also have a whole lot more to lose! Let us all, please, just not spoil it, and break it!, once again. We may not have a second chance to recover and … do things right that time around…

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9 Comments »

  • Just as GenX shifted and changed the workforce, it will shift once again with Millennials. It’s naive to hold fast to the belief that the formal structures that Boomers built and enjoy will remain the norm. Need an example of the shifts coming? Compare the formal structure of a place like IBM or Kodak with less-formal structure of Google or Zappos. Even Google as it grew and built in some structures to align functions maintains a more ‘open’ collaborative and constructive environment.

    Millennials are 100 million strong and not even half have joined the full-time workforce. GenX which was 1/3 that size created huge shifts in structure. A few examples – casual work dress, open office plans, more frequent reviews, independent work structures, telecommuting, title creativity, work/life balance considerations, and more. All that from a single, small generation. To state that Millennials won’t affect formal business structures is to ignore the potential impact of 100 million people and their impact on every business in America.

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  • Rick Ladd says:

    Hello, Luis. Are you tired of seeing my here? Just kidding. I know how much you love engagement. Me too! This subject, as you well know, is near and dear to my heart. As a self-described BooMillennial, I believe I demonstrate traits of both generations. Actually, I probably demonstrate traits of others as well, but how do I come up with a neologism for that?

    However, as I have stated elsewhere numerous times, as a proponent of the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism (I’ll leave it to anyone who encounters this comment to look it up if they wish), I am of the opinion that the way in which we work is the primary discriminator in how we get things done. Having said that, however, I also believe it is not only possible, but an evolutionary reality that we continuously (albeit subtly most of the time) change our working conditions over time.

    In my opinion, Andrew is partly correct in that we still work according to many of the tenets set forth by Fredrick Taylor, and we tend to be hierarchically organized and use command-and-control structures for more than I have a taste for. At the same time, as you, I, and many others have discussed before (even Andy has), there are forces inexorably changing how we get our work done, and I am very much in favor of them winning.

    OTOH, I was very active in the anti-war (Vietnam) movement many years ago, was a Hippie 1.0, and I have had the great misfortune of seeing my “generation” actually accomplish very little in the way of changing things like we thought we should . . . and could.

    So . . . as I tweeted a little bit ago, I’m kind of in agreement with both of you. We spend too much time on generational stereotypes IMO, when the real differences are to be found in the technologies available to us and the forms of organization they give us the ability to engage in (that’s the materialist part of Materialist Dialectics ;).

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  • I’m torn on this one, Luis. As much as I would love to believe that it will happen, I think Andy is mostly right. There are cultures which will change incrementally, but not radically as you and I hope they would. Why? The Millenials will be forced to work according to the culture, processes and confines of a specific business. One – even many Millenials with zero authority won’t make a major change.

    Although I don’t believe the future change is there, I do believe it will be somewhere else. You and J Schmitt came close to it. She pointed out that the example of change is from Google and Zappos. Both of those are new businesses. And I think this is where the change will happen – new startups. Not changing current, but inventing new and starting afresh. THIS is how it the old businesses will adjust. They will see the actions of these and be FORCED to adjust.

    As we progress toward our Hippie 2.0 ideals, I believe it will be those who start anew, not those who try to change something existing that will have the most profound effects.

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  • Experience taught me that Yers are not as disruptive and change-driving as they are told. On the other hand organizations will have to change, and they’ll do, going (even slightly) in the Yers way, albeit not as fast as me may like.
    Balancing all that have made me think of something for a couple a months and nothing made me change my mind yet :

    enterprises and millenials will change together, not because the one because of the other.

    It’s about co-evolution, not confrontation. Otherwise it will be a loose-loose deal.

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  • Fine post Luis, and you beat me to it by a few hours: http://www.martijnlinssen.com/2010/07/generations-social-and-enterprise-adopt.html

    I’m glad to encounter my dear living dinosaur Rick in here, who never ceases to make valid points all the time – without tripping over his own tongue but that’s how it is ;-)

    Just keeping it short: for big emps and orgs and ents, the way we work *has* to change

    Oh and Kevin? Millennials don’t get forced, they just move over to the next best biz, or anything else. The absence of religious or political dogmas helps to focus on what’s important: today!

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  • John Hagel says:

    Wonderful post and very consistent with the key theme in my new book, The Power of Pull, of the movement from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows as the foundation for economic value creation. Would be very interested in your perspective on this book.

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  • Jack Vinson says:

    Reading this and pondering the words of “Tribal Leadership,” I see the signs of the different stages in what you write. Luis- you are aiming for Stage 4 and Stage 5 workplaces of the future, but Andrew McAfee is writing from a perspective of Stage 3 or even Stage 2. In that world, of course, the workplace will change the people. But in Stage 4/5 it is the people that CREATE the workplace.

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  • [...] structure as they get settled into the working environment. While at first glance Luis Suarez in this post seems to disagree with Andrew (he says so too), i think he is trying to refine what Andrew [...]

  • [...] So where are we going to? I strongly believe that some in particular cultural and technological trends do drive change and can not be stopped or being reversed. And there I do agree with my IBM buddy and Hippie 2.0-forward thinker Luis Suarez: Quite the opposite. I do believe that millennials, better said, a millenial working style will surely transform and shape how we conduct business at work today, … via elsua.net [...]

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