E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Dear Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Yers … Can We Please Move On?

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo & Surroundings in the Spring Earlier on today I bumped into an article that made me wonder, once again, about when are we going to stop talking around the topic of multiple generations at work and the generational divide itself, as one of the arguments that’s going to change the workplace for good in the next coming years, if not already altogether. I wonder when people are going to realise that this is not about Baby Boomers, Gen Xers or Gen Yers (Or Millennials) having their own needs within the corporate world. This is all about working styles; about identifying the strengths from one and another and make them work together in a rather complex business environment where what matters is how people collaborate and share their knowledge across to become more productive at what they already do. Not whether one group of knowledge workers belongs to this or that generation and therefore their needs are different than the others. Actually, they may not well be the case altogether. Those needs may be the same across the board. It all depends on successfully combining and mixing those working styles to reflect today’s complexity in our business world to get the job done.

The latest culprit of that reflection is a recent article published by Gary Curtis in CIO UK Magazine under the title “Give your workplace a Millennial makeover“, which I got through a rather interesting follow-up write-up by my good friend Stu McIntyre and a tweet from fellow IBM colleague Steve Cogan (Amongst several others), based on some recent global research conducted by Accenture on “Millennials’ views and use of technology in 13 countries“. It surely is worth a read.

In that article Gary covers a good number of the key lessons that CIOs need to learn, as well as provides a good number of recommendations on what things to pay attention to with regards to this millennial workforce entering the workplace. Now, I am not going to spoil all the fun commenting extensively on the article itself; I would encourage you to have a look into those recommendations yourself, as there is plenty of common ground to develop further on that idea of different working styles vs. the generational divide. However, what I would like to do in this blog entry is to comment a bit more on each and everyone of the key lessons learned from that piece of research, because they surely prove that point that this is way beyond the generations argument per se. And here is why we may need to start shifting gears with that argument, and perhaps be done with it altogether, as my good friend Kevin Jones suggested just recently under “Baby Boomers vs. Digital Natives – Let the Debate… End“:

  • Millennials expect to use the technology and devices of their choice: And who wouldn’t, right? Now, I know and fully realise that I may be one of those lucky folks who happens to work for a large IT company (IBM) that understands the concept of freeing up the human batteries and empowering its knowledge workers to take the most advantage from the technology around them to get their jobs done at the end of the day. But, are we alone? Probably not, although I am sure folks would be kind enough to remind us on the comments section about how restricting some businesses have become over time not allowing their employees to use technology as they see fit and, instead, block and lock down their machines so that they can’t do anything out of the ordinary with them. How limiting can that be? How long before companies start trusting their employees to behave like those good hard working professionals they hired in the first place?
    How liberating, on the other hand, can it be to use your own MacBook Pro, your own iPhone, your own iPad or whatever other mobile device, to hook up to the company’s network through a secure and trusted VPN connection and do your job in an environment that you enjoy and fully embrace? Yes, I know! Quite liberating! Well, that’s been my computing environment for a while now (Already over the third year mark with my own MacBook Pro and counting!) and, at this point in time, I doubt I would have it any other way.

    Why? Most probably because 10 years ago we didn’t fully realise the true potential that was hidden behind making the most out of the Web; 10 years later there is just so much promise out there with these social tools that it would be just too bad to neglect and deny the access to such an abundance of people, networks, resources, information and knowledge, as my good friend Brett Miller puts it nicely over at “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age“.

    I dream of the day where knowledge workers would, finally, be in almost (You probably know what I mean with that one, right? ;-)) total control of their own computing environment so that they can focus on the tasks at hand to do their jobs versus trying to keep fighting with all of the technology hurdles we see, and bump into, today. I am not a millennial, nor a techie, just someone who wants to explore the full potential of what’s available out there, you know. And, somehow, I bet I’m not the only one feeling that way, don’t you think? Specially, when we all know it’s out there, waiting for us to engage!

  • They either don’t care about or won’t obey corporate IT policies: Yet, every single business lives truly by their own corporate values and culture, as well as business conduct guidelines that year after year we still need to comply with. It’s part of the business. It’s probably part of work, too! Still, there is a huge difference from imposing corporate IT policies on your employees than to helping people understand the risks behind ignoring or bypassing them by encouraging them to shape them according to their needs and wants, as well as those of the business itself. To, eventually, co-creatively and collaboratively improve them in a rather open and transparent manner, so that they, too, feel part of that co-creation process of defining the company’s (IT) policies for themselves.

    It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s worked for us, too!; that’s how the IBM Social Computing Guidelines have been brought to life, back in 2005, with their updated versions in 2008 and 2010. If you engage your employees, whatever the generation they may be coming from, to shape those (IT) policies, I can guarantee you they will respond back! In fact, they would go the extra mile to make it work not only for them, but also for you. Straight and simple. Try it out and you will see. They won’t fail you. They are just waiting out there to take a share of responsibility for the business that they spend more than a lifetime working for. Don’t you think it would be worth it for them as well?

  • They have entirely different view of privacy than previous generations: Yes, they probably do, just like I do with older generations, but that doesn’t mean that privacy is dead for them. Quite the contrary! They still have it, pretty much like us, it’s just that they are re-defining it to meet their needs, just as much as we did, each and everyone of us, when we had the opportunity and the chance to do so. The interesting thing is that they may not see privacy in the same way we do, but they respect it, because they know that if they would want you to respect their privacy, they would need to start by respecting yours.

    It’s all part of that negotiation process that takes place when two or more people need to collaborate on something, i.e. a particular task. It’s all part of a mutual understanding that there will be areas of that collaboration that will be shared and there will be others that, because of the nature of what needs to be shared, will remain just that: private.

    Eventually, it’s all about striking for that balance between that need to know and that need to share, while trying to get the job done. Yes, I do realise that it’s a lot more complex than what I try to put together over here in this blog post, but there is something out there that constantly permeates through the corporate world which we should not forget: compromise. Compromise that may come in the shape of mentoring: older and younger generations mutually learning from each other’s working styles, so they essentially grab the best of both worlds, merge them and become one. One that would benefit both altogether. Any business that is not encouraging mentoring within their organisation is missing plenty of the great opportunities informal learning can offer in this respect. So what are you waiting for?

  • They have little use for corporate email as a major collaboration tool: Really? Nothing new on that one, right? Remember living “A World Without Email“? All generations are feeling that way nowadays, in my opinion. In fact, if you get together a group of your knowledge workers and you ask them to pick up one of the tools they use on a daily basis that they could do without, or, at least, do without a bunch of volume and noise that it generates, I bet that a very high % of those folks would chose email.

    Email per se is a great communication tool, but in the current times we live in today, where things happen yesterday, in real-time, where you would need to react almost immediately, or suffer from the consequences, there is a great chance that email doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s not fast enough. It’s not pervasive enough to reach the entire workforce, specially those folks who may not have activated their email accounts in the first place, or those other folks who are starting to associate email with playing political emails or just plain “CYA” (Cover your a**e!). Or, simply, they are just getting too much of it, too little value overall.

    More and more the knowledge workforce is asking for more open, public and transparent collaboration where email is no longer the only game in town, the bottleneck that regulated everything, the exception to every single process, but, instead, just basically, one more of the many many choices available. And since most other options out there are better collaboration and knowledge sharing tools, it’s not surprising to see how more and more workers prefer to move the conversations elsewhere. Not just the younger ones. That’s why I started that initiative 2.5 years ago in the first place! And still going strong… There *are* better collaboration tools out there. It’s just a matter of choice for us to pick up the ones we would want to work with, regardless of whatever the generational label we would want to use.

I don’t know what you would think, but after going through all of those key lessons mentioned in Gary’s article I am more convinced by the minute that I’m going to agree quite a bit with Kevin’s argument of ending the debate about whether we do have multiple generations at work and the younger ones being the ones that are going to take the corporate workplace by storm. That’s probably not going to happen per se. It’s the balanced mixture of working styles the ones that are going to shape up and define “The Future of the Workplace”. Not the generations. They have got much more important things to tackle than just trying to divide themselves. So we better stop trying to divide and conquer them and, instead, making them stronger by the day helping them realise their true potential: a unique knowledge workforce capable of capable of combining the best of both worlds, learning from one another, while on the job, understanding not only what their limitations are, but fully embracing their strengths and let them permeate throughout the entire corporate culture. There is a great chance that only then they will help you move your business into the 21st century.

One where work will get organised, and done!, through social networks and communities, vs. traditional hierarchies (Or organisations) and generational stereotypes. We have got better things to do, and to focus on, to be honest, than to split the single, most powerful competitive advantage you have got nowadays as a business: your talented knowledge workforce. Trust them! Allow them to co-share that responsibility of caring for your business and let them work together in that complex environment where they know what they are doing. Each and everyone of them. Regardless of the generation. Just start empowering them so that they can empower you!


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  1. While I agree email may be like getting a newspaper in some ways, it also is THE only way to sometimes reach people.
    I could leave a vmail or a DM but of my clients I can only think of 2 on Twitter, 3 on Facebook but numerous using IM.
    Age is the culprit, no question.
    but they all have a phone and email and do reply to them.
    It will take a long time for email to die but in its current format it has reached a plateau, no question.

    The other discussion, which rarely gets touched on is around speed.
    IT and most companies do not work at internet speed.
    Startups do and therein lies some issues as well.
    Old CIO’s can’t work in a new world easily and it will possibly create companies that can change overnight but provide no long term feelings to customers, a la Microsoft applications.

  2. This is all getting very silly.

    No-one denies the right of ‘Millenials’ (or indeed any generation) to add their 2c to the conversation around corporate IT policies – that sort of input is expected of every employee.

    However the vast majority of millenials entering the workforce will not be the uber-geeks headed for a CIO role sometime in the next ten years – they will be the interns, the secretaries, the call-centre operators, the bank tellers (and all similar entry-level positions) and their role will be to “Work as Directed” from 9 till 5 and then they can go home.

    Sure the golden-eyed grads from MIT can demand whatever electronic toy they want, but the other 99% of the millenial population will be told to go with the flow or they can start looking for another job even if that flow means IE6 and Notes 6.5 running on Win XP.

    I agree that there are serious transformations coming for email and related technologies over the next ten years, but those decisions will be made by the Gen X / Gen Y / Baby Boomers who are currently running the show, not by the newly-hired Millenials who will be sharpening the pencils and fetching the coffees for another few years yet.

    By the time the Millenials start calling the shots there will be a new generation coming through the education system wanting to bring their own electronic teddy bears to work and they will meet the same reception that the Millenials are getting now ie “Log out of Facebook and get back to work or you’re fired!”

    Coincidentally I sat in on an IT meeting for a 2,000 seat corporate yesterday and that was EXACTLY the message that was given to the 60+ IT technicians in the room. That corporate is running Notes R851, Quikr and Sametime and they striving to live at the forefront of information technology. They are also the researchers, designers and manufacturers of a world-beating electronic product so they are quite sensitive to the needs of their own R&D staff.

    There’s nothing special about Millenials. They need to acknowledge that their personal expectations must adjust to the corporate environment or they will all be tweeting each other from their reserved seats at the dole office.

  3. I appreciate that each generation has different values and expectations, and that each generation will have an opportunity to stamp their mark on society as a whole, but many procedures are dictated by law.

    So until Government and regulators make some significant changes to these laws and regulations, all generations will need to comply.

    Any by the time that changes, the Gen-Y and Millenials will have seriously grey hair anyway.


  4. I think you’re overstating the demise of e-mail. It’s not a perfect collaboration tool, granted, but it means something that the most common use of the smartphone today is for e-mail. Our research of our own community/audience is that e-mail is still a highly preferred channel for every age group, in spite of its annoying and frustrating aspects.

  5. Luis, I think you hit it right on the head that the issue should be about working styles more than what environment you came up in. It’s true that there are stereotypes and that goodly percentages of the generational stereotypes apply. In a sidebar during our session with Rawn today, my client asked the two 23-year-old interns how well they fit the millennial stereotype. One said, not so much, because I grew up in a military family. The other said it fit pretty well.

    Fact is, there are many things that influence us besides our year of birth. Yes, I was born before color TV, but I also had access to a teletype in my home to start learning FORTRAN.

    I think the key message here is we need to listen to each other and to the extent we need to work together, we need to learn each other’s styles so we effectively work together. We need to build the trust and live up to our commitments.

    That said, there’s nothing wrong with reinforcing your preferences. Just today, I reminded a colleague that it would really be better to put that document in the collaboration space.

    Thanks for stimulating the conversation!

  6. Several of Dee Hock’s Chaordic Leadership Principles came to mind while reading your post. I’ll mention three that I think are particularly here:

    Human Relations: First, last, and only principle — when dealing with subordinates, repeat silently to yourself, “You are as great to you as I am to me, therefore, we are equal.” When dealing with superiors, repeat silently to yourself, “I am as great to me as you are to you, therefore we are equal.”

    Hiring: Never hire or promote in your own image. It is foolish to replicate your strength. It is stupid to replicate your weakness. Employ, trust, and reward those whose perspective, ability and judgment are radically different from your own and recognize that it requires uncommon humility, tolerance, and wisdom.

    Leadership: Lead yourself, lead your superiors, lead your peers and free your people to do the same. All else is trivia.

  7. Bravo. It is time to move on from simplistic characterizations based on age bands alone. The conversations about digital natives at work were once interesting, but at some point you really have to question both the validity of the data and the utility of the conversation. I find that as much as I thought the idea was interesting, the feeling dissipated when I saw how weak this line of thought was.

    I’ll add that some of the research published in the area of age and work-style is technically pretty shoddy. There is a play on fear (younger workers will steal your job if you don’t do something about it). There is also a shifty way to define age bands — much like the way people play with boundaries and demographics to get the data to fit.

    I recall carefully studying the research data and methodology of a well-respected market research firm who published some papers about this topic a few years ago and was dismayed at the quality of research. Other research firms just seemed to echo each other too. I shared some thoughts about it here. Your readers might find this interesting too. http://www.gilyehuda.com/2009/09/16/myths-of-generational-research/

  8. The “millennials” comment that always drives me mad is when Gen Y’ers rant about how their generation wants to be heard instead of just spoken to. For example, they say they want to have a dialog with brands not just be pushed one-way advertising. Ummm, yeah… who doesn’t? That is not something unique to those born in the 80s or newer. How many Motrin Mom’s were in their 20s? How many people Tweeting to ComcastCares are in their 20s?

    I know a lot of 20 year olds that have zero interest in Facebook or Twitter. We in IT tend to think that our little echo chambers of like-minded-circles represents the masses, but they don’t.

    A more accurate assessment of needs should be based on working style and technical proficiency, not age.

    I get it, it is a normal cycle that every generation goes through. I’m sure our parents joke with each other about how we feel we’re so different from them.

  9. Great post, Luis, in predominant part I agree and I think, just to say what you’ve said in a few words, I hope, is that the big point and reason for this millennial/Gen X/etc. discussion is really that the generations are showing a (nearly exponential) movement to personal autonomy and workplace freedom of choice. Which to your point fits in some real way our human nature.

    But what I would dissent a bit about is that generations can and do change each way, and we may see a future generation wish for more command and control, for boundary-setting. In some ways – outside the very top-down workplace – we saw this in social mores with Gen X rejecting some big part of the less-defined boundaries that Baby Boomers had (not so clearly) established for those kids. So the generational concentration and the notion that we may in fact hit the wall re privacy and workplace freedom I think deserve ongoing focus as such, and therefore ongoing.

    That and I think we need to realize that for some people the harping on this being a generational change is of value if only for those people to realize that this change will become more pronounced, not less.

    Then again, I finally do want to say that I think most articles and analyses are over-reaching in saying such as “Millennials will be transparent and collaborative and demand it of others!” The missing part of this analysis is the observation of change a generation itself goes through. The hippies of the ’60s did not end up being live-and-let-live communal-style workers; rather they in some large part emulated the “Greatest Generation” before them with some tweaks and shifts. So we will also see, I posit, Millennials also change somewhat to suit the workplace and per social experiences they’ve yet to hit (or ones they are now such as the “Great Recession” which may be teaching some young knowledge workers to use knowledge as power to keep their jobs in unhealthy workplaces).

  10. @elsua I was led to this “Move On” post via Sacha Chua’s “Getting Past Generation Based Conversations” post. It led me to track down a 2007 post by Kevin Kelly extending Alan Kay. Kelly writes:

    “Technology,” Kay says, “is anything that was invented after you were born.” By that clever reckoning, automobiles, refrigerators, transistors, and nylon are not technologies in our eyes — just plain old stuff.

    There may still be a learning curve with interactive technologies, as we see in Web 2.0. Baby boomers don’t seem to have problems with new HD televisions or e-readers or iPads. The more persistent have adopted Tivos and iPods, which reduces the need for synchronous engagement, but are still mostly stuck on telephone and e-mail as the way of communicating.

    I’m still surprised how many businesses don’t use instant messaging, which has become one of the standard ways of communications in progressive companies.

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