The Net Generation Goes To Work

Technology Staff Editor
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Sanjiv is a 26-year-old programmer for Blue Ocean Networks, a small company that develops network-software systems in large organizations. He liked his old job with a company that designs airline booking systems, but he switched to Blue Ocean largely because it offers flexible work schedules. Sanjiv often prefers to work at night and use some daytime hours to exercise at the gym or volunteer at the local food bank. Meet your average twentysomething professional—a member of the "Net Generation" raised, educated, and socialized in a world of digital communications. The Net Generation, also called the N-Gen, consists of people born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. As pointed out in Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill, 1997), N-Geners are the first to be "bathed in bits"—a generation of people who differ from their baby-boomer parents in the way they play, learn, communicate, spend their time—and even think. Now, N-Geners have begun to enter the job market—and, true to our predictions, they work differently as well. To attract, retain, and engage these employees in an increasingly competitive environment, companies must understand the Net Generation. How should CIOs and other executives deal with N-Geners such as Sanjiv? Is he hurting or helping business? Should his boss see him as a loose cannon or as an entrepreneurial contributor? How a business answers these questions reveals how it will relate to employees like Sanjiv, some of whom will emerge as the next generation's leaders. We at New Paradigm have learned much about the N-Geners' potential since we began studying them in 1995. Organizations in fields such as financial services, telecommunications, technology, professional services, and government are understanding how to engage with this generation. We see the continued prevalence of information technologies in youth experience as something that employers must grapple with as they prepare for the challenges of the 21st century. The story here isn't the technology, but how N-Geners manipulate it.

These workers can't imagine a world without Google or mobile phones. They grew up surrounded by PCs in their homes and classrooms; spent their high-school years using E-mail, the Web, and message boards; and were quick to adopt mobile phones, instant messaging, and, to a lesser extent, PDAs. Unlike their forebears, who have had to adapt to IM and the iPod, N-Geners regard these technologies as part of their birthright. Professionally, they embrace a new work ethic that's influenced by the speed at which information and decisions move. They also demonstrate intellectual, temporal, locational, and occupational freedom; openness to new ideas, information, and knowledge sharing; authenticity and the quest for the validity of information; and the desire for work that's both challenging and fun. Make Way For The Net SetThe concept of this work ethic can be best understood through a set of new, nontraditional attributes. These N-Gen norms—speed, freedom, openness, authenticity, and playfulness—can also form the basis for a revitalized and innovative work culture. The work ethic that results from these norms can guide competitive advantage through the effectively recruited, engaged, and retained Net Generation employee. This isn't to suggest that an "engage them and they will build it" approach guarantees business success; indeed, balancing N-Gen norms with those of older generations will be a constant challenge. However, an IT department that can embody these five norms and leverage the innate traits of N-Geners will foster innovation. Not only will a company attract high-potential N-Gen employees, but the changes implemented will reshape the working environment, benefiting new and old employees alike. To illustrate and dramatize these norms, we'll return to fictional scenarios starring 26-year-old Sanjiv. Also, we'll link each norm to an N-Gen formative technology metaphor. A good metaphor for N-Gen speed is IM. The ability to conduct real-time chats with a database of contacts from around the world has normalized rapid communication in both virtual and real-time environments. But there can be a disconnect between the pace of IM and the much slower rate of traditional "corporate messaging," as Sanjiv discovered at his company. He had some ideas for a user-feedback mechanism in Blue Ocean's software that he believed would instantly improve client relations. He told Bonnie, his supervisor, about his ideas. She liked them and asked him to elaborate in a memo, which he E-mailed to her the next day. One day later, Bonnie thanked Sanjiv and said she would write a memo to his unit's project director, who in turn would write the VP, who in turn would raise it with the CEO at their next meeting in a week's time. That same day, Sanjiv spotted Blue Ocean's CEO entering the elevator. Why wait two weeks to have his idea shared with the CEO? If Sanjiv mentioned it now, he might get the unofficial go-ahead to begin. So he told the CEO about his ideas. Unfortunately, this kind of thing was frowned upon at Blue Ocean. An awkward silence hung in the elevator car. Planning, decision making, delegating, and transferring information according to corporate etiquette are time-intensive activities around which many companies structure their work. For a generation used to the quick flow of information, the long work processes older generations have adopted are abhorrent. Protocol is a particularly important challenge in this regard. It limits access to new ideas that may come from lower levels of the company. It also thwarts the Net Generation's expectation of direct, peer-to-peer communication through E-mail and IM. In the end, companies must strike a balance between speed and protocol. In addition to rapid communication, younger workers accelerated career advancement. Organizations that fail to demonstrate the potential for employees to rise will be less desirable to future N-Gen leaders. But again, they'll need to strike a balance—between older workers, who expect advancement to be determined primarily by seniority, and younger employees, who expect rapid advancement based on their achievements.

Freedom, another of the five N-Gen norms identified, is best exemplified in mobile phones and search engines, which represent physical and intellectual freedom, respectively. Anyone can be reached from virtually anywhere thanks to the mobile phone. Meanwhile, the ability to find and sift through a variety of opinions and the potential for serendipitous discoveries via search engines provide an entirely new method of navigating and satiating intellectual curiosity. All generations value freedom. What's different is the degree to which N-Geners have grown up with it in intellectual, locational, vocational, and temporal contexts. When work activities require employees to be in the office from 9 to 5, N-Geners' demands for flexible work schedules and environments can be problematic. As a programmer, Sanjiv could be seen as an individual contributor most of the time, so he can easily work on his own time just about anywhere. But a lot of other jobs require teamwork, client or supplier contact, shift work, or just being available and on call. Online KidsCompanies that can't accommodate this dichotomy between openness and structure will need other kinds of incentives to retain high-potential younger employees. Some companies give these employees BlackBerrys or Treos from day one to facilitate collaboration. Others provide direct CXO access for mentoring, as well as for reverse-mentoring—where the youngsters teach the CXO about, say, social networking by explaining their Facebook profile and how it works. Still others, like Google, insist that employees spend a certain proportion of their time—as much as 20%—dreaming about innovations that could help the business. The expectations of freedom and balance can be leveraged for competitive advantage: CIOs can use freedom as a reward by offering flexible work schedules or sabbaticals. Companies can also incorporate variety into individual work flows by varying an employee's daily tasks. In addition, companies can achieve greater efficiencies through virtual teaming. Finding the right mix of people to collaborate on projects is much easier if companies are freed from the traditional barrier of location, provided that workers are comfortable with collaborative technologies. File sharing through Napster and other services has revolutionized the distribution of music, TV shows, software, and movies, fostering an openness among N-Geners. The need for openness also is born out of years of constant feedback in their education and access to a wide variety of communication tools and contexts. Therefore, it's more important for these workers to understand and feel understood by the people who employ them—not only in their work life, but also in their social networks, hobbies, and interests. While other age groups also want this, the Net Generation expects it. Like speed, openness poses challenges to workplaces that are unaccustomed to it. For example, when Sanjiv completed a challenging project ahead of deadline, he E-mailed the project to his superior, noting where he might need additional help and asking for her thoughts. When his supervisor got around to responding several weeks later, she wrote: "I fixed some little things here and there. You need to be more careful on some details but, overall, good work." Although Sanjiv was relieved that his work was somewhat valuable, he needed details. What did she fix? Where did he need to be more careful? How was he supposed to learn when he had no specifics? He wanted to tell his supervisor he needed this kind of feedback, but he feared she was too busy.

One of the best ways of understanding this generation is through blogging, a medium that, at its best, exemplifies authenticity. Blogs are public and private; many N-Geners aren't embarrassed to post personal journal-style entries online and have them read by friends or random surfers. Likewise, authenticity serves as a diagnostic tool, an ongoing workplace thermometer that measures the strength and relevance of the employee-employer relationship. Sanjiv hates the mass E-mail messages his managers constantly circulate. He wants to understand what kind of people his employers are—what motivates them and what they do in their spare time. He also wants to know how they make decisions on hiring and promotions, and why the higher-ups are so secretive about their decision-making process. Exactly what an authentic or open workplace should look like is a subjective question. But for starters, supervisors can establish an informal comfort level where criticism and congratulations are invited and accepted. A supervisor who quickly and informally debriefs a worker about a senior meeting will accomplish more than one who waits for minutes to be drawn up and distributed a week later. All too often, older folks mistake a passion for video games as a sign of immaturity. While it's true that N-Geners love to have fun, the intricacy and challenge these games represent is also important to them, as it satisfies their desire for accomplishment—just as executing a complex work project does. The work ethic of N-Geners gives them a leg up as inherent innovators. Their need for freedom will take them to uncharted territory. Their playfulness will inject entertainment value into the workplace. And their appetite for authenticity makes them resistant to ill-considered attempts by older generations to "speak their lingo." The timing of their formative experiences is also important, as the N-Gen is the most experienced generation in the information age. Used properly, they can identify IT and information-age opportunities for organizations. Companies able to adapt to these new demands will serve as a catalyst for innovation, helping to maximize N-Geners' output and speed. From that point, effective strategies can be instituted to attract, engage, and retain the Net Generation. Since the industrial revolution, employer-employee relations have often been lopsided. But the downsizing, rightsizing, and reengineering practices of the 1980s and 1990s put an end to company loyalty. As N-Geners strive for the flexibility of lifetime employability, they realize that success lies in who and what you know. Accordingly, they rely on employee webs (E-webs): digitally enabled networks that connect to peers and friends; suppliers of information and products; larger communities; and the shareholders and competitors of employers (see chart). Whereas a traditional paper-based address book can get full, an E-mail contact list can expand infinitely. Sanjiv probably has upward of 1,000 contacts in his E-mail address book.
Digitally Connected
N-Geners gravitate toward companies that will help them build resumés embodying the new work-ethic norms of speed, freedom, playfulness, openness, and authenticity. Companies, for their part, must engineer a new kind of relationship with these employees to help build competitive advantage. Key to the emergent relationship is that it's reciprocal from the start. Treating N-Gen employees and entry-level staff as mere drones undervalues what they can bring to the corporation. They have more experience with the information age than many other employees in the company. Building a new employee relationship requires a steadfast commitment to move from a command-and-control model to one of engagement and collaboration. For most companies, staffing is simply a matter of employee recruitment, training, and retention. But as N-Geners see it, it's an exercise in initiating, engaging, and nurturing the employee-employer relationship. They'll demand substance from the companies willing to develop a relationship with them. They'll seek out working environments that reflect their attitudes and behaviors, or that offer them the opportunity to effect change. And they'll expect answers as to what their future role will be. These workers are a tremendous source of competitive and innovative advantage—not only for the quality of the work they can turn out, but also for the links they're able to provide to the next generation of consumers, shareholders, community members, and competitors. To thrive in the 21st century, businesses will want to keep this new breed of Web-savvy employees happy—and productive—on the job. Don Tapscott is the founder and chief executive of New Paradigm. Robert Barnard is the founder of D-Code, a strategic research company. Samir Khan, a research leader at D-Code, also contributed to this article. Tell us how the Net Generation is reshaping your company, or to comment on this story, visit its blog.

With the help of Web-savvy Net Geners, even traditional businesses can thrive in the brave new world of iPods and instant messaging. But it may take a dose of corporate culture shock to win over this new breed of employee. Here are some tips to get you out of baby-boomer mode.
  • Polish your company's resumé > It used to be that the employer asked all the questions at a job interview. But these days, Net Generation applicants are demanding equal time. They want to ensure that they, too, will thrive in your work environment. > Forward-thinking companies will develop their own resumés to sell prospective N-Gen employees on the experiences they offer. Such resumés will describe what the company knows, who it knows, what it needs to know, and the kind of worker who can help it succeed.
  • Keep your workers happy > It's one thing to hire N-Geners, but quite another to retain them. Use every means and opportunity to get to know your employees, their likes and dislikes, and their overall level of satisfaction. > For example, consider indulging the quest for speed and distaste for protocol with an open idea exchange. Borrowing from speed dating, you could let each N-Gener spend five minutes per month with a person of authority to pitch an idea. This would give the company access to new ideas while boosting employee morale. > Another way to motivate N-Geners is to rethink work-flow systems and time horizons. These employees like project-based work, which typically has an initial launch phase, a middle development and testing phase, and an end phase in which the final product is implemented. Also, high-potential N-Geners prefer to work in groups of 15 to 30. The team-based unit reinforces their belief that problems are most effectively tackled by applying various strengths to achieve the best outcome. Organizations that move to a flatter organizational structure find that teams connect better to wider goals; they "get" the big picture.
  • Don't burn your bridges > While you may be disappointed if a prized N-Gener leaves you for another job, there's no need to despair. Worker mobility can pay off in the long run. > Stay in touch with former employees who have developed new skills elsewhere. After all, these "alumni" can always be courted back. And when they do eventually return, they'll be more effective than ever.

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