Absorbing the Web 2.0 Generation

"They are digital natives, very different individuals, living, educated and working in digital spaces. Sharing is instinctive among them… It’s not about being selfish but about cooperating in effective, efficient ways." Dr James Bellini, speaking at the 8th Annual Shared Services Week, May 2008

There’s no doubt that we’re living through one of the great technological leaps forward in human history. The advent of the internet, the rise of mobile personal communication and an ever-increasing data capacity are part of a global revolution - the digital revolution - every bit as significant as any that have preceded it and reaching into almost every aspect of our daily lives: work, rest and play have been transformed by the incessant and accelerating digital flow surging around us towards a future that still at times appears the stuff of science fiction.

It’s no surprise that this revolution is having a profound impact on those of us living through it; people are changing the way they operate socially and, of course, in business: innovations such as email, digital invoicing and a host of others have transformed the work environment and, in many cases, the very nature of that work, with whole new professions rising up in a matter of a few years. But if the changes are marked in those who’ve had to adapt to the digital revolution, what of the children of that revolution - those who’ve never known any other way of being? How does the rise of the "digital natives" impact upon the already increasingly dynamic professional landscape; how can (and must) businesses change themselves in reaction to the arrival of a generation unlike any other in human history?

That the latest generation is indeed a different breed, there should be no doubt; while older hands have adapted very successfully to mobile telephony, blogging and the like, the so-called "Web 2.0 generation" haven’t had to adapt at all - they’ve simply never had it any other way. That’s not to say it’s an easy task to define exactly what makes a Generation Y-or-Z-er (indeed the definitions are a matter for great debate among academics; as a rule of thumb, however, the demographic "Generation Y" tends to be defined as those born between 1980 and 1989, with "Generation Z" following that) or to pinpoint how a digital native‘s skills and potential differ from those of a member of the older cohort; what’s less easy still, of course, is to work out how an organization can make the most of those differences - and how it can avoid the trouble in store for those who don’t adapt to them at all.

"Gen Y staff have the following characteristics," says Ravichandran Venkataraman, Director Operations for ANZ Operations & Technology. "They are self-reliant, independent and need flexibility. Having seen redundancies, they are comfortable with change and diversity. [They are] very technology and media 'savvy'; place high value on education and skill development; want responsibility and want to play meaningful roles. Social and environmental responsibilities of business are taken as a given."

Furthermore, adds Venkataraman, the digital natives "need role models – these need not be their managers.  They will get different role models for different aspects of life. They need to learn quickly and use their potential – if a Leader can recognize that, they are willing to stretch and outperform. They need practice at leadership without the accountability so that they can protect themselves from mistakes as they learn. They are willing to seek help for this and they cut across rank and file to seek help. Help would be from someone they see as their role model and that may not be the head of the organization. And they have a very collaborative style of working."

"Collaborative" is one of the most frequently invoked terms when describing what sets the Web 2.0 generation apart from its predecessors: these individuals have grown up in an era when - perhaps in reaction to the hyper-individualistic mores of the yuppie era, but certainly also as a result of the growth of electronic networking, peer-to-peer technology and the paradigm shift associated with something as superficially unremarkable as the ‘Reply All’ function - sharing content, ideas and plans is not just possible but second-nature. Whereas in times gone by businesses might have taken a very silo-based approach to matters such as product development, the new wave is accustomed to throwing ideas back and forth - often across continents - and generally thinking and looking well outside the box in a way which could unnerve those used to more regimented working methods.

Collaborative working is very rapidly becoming the norm: the open-source revolution may have been kicked off by Generation X, but it’s Generations Y & Z that are taking up the reins with aplomb. (In fact some organizations are using open-source-type collaboration as a way of reducing their reliance on traditional "fixed" -  not to mention "salaried" - employees altogether, often very profitably: earlier this decade a Canadian mining company posted geological data online and invited people to tell them, in exchange for a series of prizes, where their next few million ounces of gold were most likely to be found. The project was a stunning - and very profitable - success.) While the potential commercial downsides of the explosion in online file-sharing might be obvious even to those unfamiliar with the music and film industries, the advantages for commerce of the development of a generation utterly at home with sharing information electronically are manifold - among them, the rise of a mindset which encourages searching across many different channels in search of a solution to an individual problem, and recognizing that there might well be a need to provide one’s own solution to a different problem in return. (The fact that these solutions might require the operator to go beyond what’s technically legally permissible, and that the Web 2.0 generation is as a result -and in general - more than familiar with circumventing established regulations, throws up its own intriguing challenges for business…)

A close cousin of the collaborative revolution is the development of social networking. Sites such as Facebook and MySpace might have been embraced by representatives of all ages but none have made them such a fundamental part of their social existences as have the digital natives (it’s interesting that the most business-facing of the major networks, LinkedIn, provides far fewer functions and applications than its more purely social peers - the consensus seems to be that LinkedIn fulfils certain business-related functions while "Facebooking" is an activity in itself). Businesses are learning to leverage social networks in a number of ways, from policing their staff (see, for instance, the numerous instances of employees landing themselves in hot water when their network postings have given the lie to their claims of sickness) and vetting (mostly unofficially - but we all know it happens…) potential new hires, to actively recruiting through these channels. As members of the Web 2.0 generation move up the ladder to fill positions of responsibility such methods will presumably become more and more commonplace."

The pay-off is an understanding that social networks are becoming as much a part of an employee’s life as his or her phone or email account - and as a result companies are increasingly "unblocking" the likes of Facebook in terms of access from individual workstations. That this creates the danger that staff will waste time online, and should therefore be banned, is very "Web 1.0" thinking: all companies can monitor their staff’s web use and abusers of this privilege can face the usual sanctions just as they would if they were spending hours of work time making personal phone calls. Furthermore, the philosophical shift implied by permitting access to networking sites - even if during set lunch hours or after work - is significant in that it demonstrates a willingness at corporate level to meet the needs of employees above and beyond what’s traditionally been considered requisite; more than just being "down with the kids", companies can show an ability to react to rapidly evolving times - as long, obviously, as it doesn’t impact upon efficiency and effectiveness.

The growth in social networking and familiarity with online media has led in recent years to a shift in internal communications methods within organizations. Many companies now provide what would previously have been considered quite radical communications to their staff: internal emails and bulletin boards might be supplemented with Wiki sites, SMS alerts, and even messages via Facebook and MySpace. While traditional forms of communication  the hard-copy newsletter hasn’t by any means died out, its encouraging to notice that organizations are experimenting with new methods aimed at maximizing impact - internal communications are having to react to the rise of the digital natives in the same way as broader marketing, and with just as much innovation.

"In areas such as marketing for example," says Clare Blatchford Hanna, HR Service Delivery Manager WEMEA at Avon Cosmetics,  "they’re hungry for anything new technology-wise, and that seems to reflect the demographic we have in that function (however I also think that is quite stereotypical of that type of individual who works within a marketing environment; always looking for the next new and exciting thing). I’ve actually been discussing this very same topic on the agenda at our Western Europe, Mid East HR Operating Council I've attended this week. We had a mixed reaction in our group where the demographic is also mixed, so it wasn't necessarily true that all the newest generation wanted the Web 2.0-type working environment, or the oldest preferred traditional systems and methodology. 

"We did all agree, though, that to communicate effectively to ALL associates and managers that there is a need for ALL types of communication along with the ability to facilitate all types of discussion, so we are pursuing old and new ways to deliver this capability to ensure we capture everyone.  This will obviously be supported by a series of change-management workstreams depending on the severity of change, and dependant on which systems are optional (encouraging interaction between functions, countries, etc) versus compulsory (eg. business process, systems implementations).  Our strap line is of course ‘Hello Tomorrow‘, which encompasses every meaning of the word including technology."

Another word which crops up frequently when discussing this generation is "entitlement". Especially in the West, Generation Y has emerged from a period of great prosperity and - comparatively - easy living, and from an educational ethos which has placed great store by the pursuit of equal attainment (the "everyone wins, no-one loses" philosophy). As a result, analysts have noted that recent hires have tended to exhibit a much greater sense of entitlement than previous generations, and an expectation that work will be fitted in around their individual lives rather than vice versa. While there may still be an instinctive reaction among many more senior professionals that "they’ll soon learn otherwise", aiming perhaps to "grind down" such tendencies with stricter regulations, in fact smart organizations are responding to this trend by allowing their staff a greater degree of flexibility. The increased rate of home- and tele-working which has been facilitated by the digital revolution has not just arisen by chance; it appeals to a generation which has combined a sense of entitlement with a great familiarity with home-based technology.

"Eighty per cent of the population that I manage," says Laura Bao, FSSC Controller for Intel, "are Generation Y, young people with very different mentalities – they have a different chip in their minds from mine, for example – and they value flexibility very much, so we have programs like what we call "telecommuting" where they’re able to work from home up to two days a week. They have different start and ending times – some of these employees are going to school so they need flexibility to continue their studies – we have found through the surveys and questionnaires that  flexibility is  one of the main reasons why they choose to stay with us. We provide portable computers to all our employees which they can take home – and this generation are technology-growers, of course, so they love that."

Of course, this kind of development creates new challenges for organizations beyond the merely logistical. An example is the application of workplace health and safety regulations to home offices. In some countries an employer may be required to ensure it provides the same environmental standards, or even the same standard of furniture, for a home office as for the main central office - thus possibly raising costs above what is tenable. Finding a happy medium between the Web 2.0 generation’s desire for flexibility and an organization’s own basic economic parameters will be an ongoing and fascinating challenge for years to come.

One characteristic of this generation which is also providing a challenge - and perhaps a less easily soluble one - is the continued evaporation of the idea of a "job for life". Even before the current economic troubles and consequent layoffs globally, it had become clear that the long-cherished concept of corporate loyalty to employees should, in many cases, be taken with a substantial pinch of salt; it’s no surprise that those employees should begin to exhibit more than mere cynicism with the concept, and - in the fluid employment market which characterized the pre-crisis economy in the west - should be more willing than previous generations to up-sticks for a new role at something akin to the drop of a hat. Even now, with job security much higher up the agenda, many organizations continue to report a high degree of churn among new hires (especially in younger markets such as the boom BPO locations where turnover frequently reaches frankly ludicrous levels) - it may be that the recession will have to prove much more severe and prolonged before these apparently careless attitudes change once again. In the meantime, as well as offering greater on-the-job flexibility as discussed companies are having to be much more innovative with the benefits they offer to retain their staff (for more on this, see SSON’s roundtable "Talent Management in Shared Services"   and "Thrive, Survive or Suffer the Consequences"  and increasingly prepared for a higher and faster turnover than might for previous generations have been the norm.

It’s clear that reacting to the intake of the Web 2.0 generation is still very much a work in progress even form the most dynamic and forward-thinking organizations - in no small part because just like any young people this generation are still to a certain extent finding their own paths through life both professional and otherwise. There are as yet no firm answers to what remain relatively fluid questions around how best to factor in skills and talents which - while obviously powerful and potentially revolutionary - have profound implications for traditional organizational models. While a transformation of sorts is occurring, it’s not necessarily as rapid or as effective as it might otherwise be (although as Clare Blatchford Hanna points out, "I think when this next generation reach a more senior level, i.e not just entrance/junior level (although that's not to say ideas from this level are excluded in any way), then they will have below them a more receptive audience to change so it is more likely to happen at a faster pace").

It’s important also to remember that while some things change, others change the same, and no matter how deep the transformation there will always be some constants as long as the work landscape features people interacting with other people.

As Ravichandran Venkataraman says: "All human beings (whichever generation, whichever culture, whichever country they belong to) have four things in common: the need to belong – they need to be clear that they belong to an organization and a team; the need to be treated with respect; the need to understand the purpose of their job and their role; the need to be recognized and appreciated. If, as a leader, I am able to touch them positively on these four aspects, I will be accepted by them as their leader.  I always believe in this saying: ‘They may not remember the words you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel'."