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Published: August 25, 2004

 
 

The Wisdom (and Worth) of "Generation Techs"

The new breed of staff can be an enormous force for positive change and success in their companies — if managers listen to them.

After years of debating the limitations of hierarchically run organizations and the merits of democratization, the end of command-and-control management may finally be here.

Blame the people 25 and younger in our midst.

Unprecedented changes in electronics and communications over the past 30 years have led to fresh patterns of thinking in these young “digital natives” — a new generation of people who are collectively harnessing both new technology and new behavioral skills — often to effect dramatic change within the organizations that employ them.

Think about Microsoft in the 1990s. The software giant was rolling along with “billg” at the helm, garnering big profits, living off simple operating systems, and ignoring the Internet. But younger Microsoft employees, more in tune with today’s technology, began filling Mr. Gates’s e-mail box with charges that he was neglecting the Web. And that he was thereby putting the company in peril. The digital chant finally got loud enough for Mr. Gates to write a now-famous strategic change memo declaring Microsoft was putting the Internet at the center of everything it did. Here was a company transformed — from the bottom up.

A recent tale of bottom-up change initiated from the U.S. military’s front lines is equally intriguing. Troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq were issued “kits” that were less than perfect for their jobs. But with an Internet search, soldiers found clothing and equipment better suited to Middle Eastern environments. They began ordering their gear online, ignoring established procedures. Eventually, military brass was won over.

Why do I call these young computer enthusiasts and organizational activists “digital natives”? Think about the extraordinary cumulative digital experiences of each of these future leaders: an average of close to 10,000 hours playing video games; more than 200,000 e-mails and instant messages sent and received; nearly 10,000 hours of talking, playing games, and using data on cell phones; more than 20,000 hours spent watching TV; almost 500,000 commercials seen — all before they finished college. At most, they’ve logged only 5,000 hours of book reading.

This generation is better than any before at absorbing information and making decisions quickly, as well as at multitasking and parallel processing. In contrast, people age 30 or older are “digital immigrants” because they can never be as fluent in technology as a native who was born into it. You can see it in the digital immigrants’ “accent” — whether it is printing out e-mails or typing with fingers rather than thumbs. Have you ever noticed that digital natives, unlike digital immigrants, don’t talk about “information overload”? Rather, they crave more information.

The youngest workers don’t need to adapt to fit into the agile, flat, team-based organizations older executives are striving to design. They just do it: They communicate, share, buy, sell, exchange, create, meet, collect, coordinate, play games, learn, evolve, search, analyze, report, program, socialize, explore, and even transgress using new digital methods and a new vocabulary most older managers don’t even understand. Blog? Wiki? RTS? Spawn? POS? Astroturf? How do these sound when juxtaposed with cross-functional cooperation, team-based management, and 360-degree feedback?

Unfortunately, many digital immigrant leaders don’t get the fact that digital natives bring unique capabilities to large organizations. Often, immigrant managers are caught between their old beliefs and the new realities they observe. As one senior executive put it: “Blogging has proven the vitality of participatory journalism. Now there are people like me coming along and trying to figure out how to package it.” That is simply digital ignorance, say the natives: There’s far more to blogging than the next new product.

This is not to suggest that a premium shouldn’t be placed on the knowledge of organizations and the management experience of top executives. Nor is it to say that digital natives — business neophytes, almost by definition — would be better at running a company than seasoned leaders. It’s simply to argue that technology is altering the face of organizations in more ways than just by improving productivity, and smart managers would do well to pay attention to what this technologically savvy generation has to offer. By overlooking or underestimating digital natives, older executives are sending a message to some of the most talented people in the work force that they are not appreciated or supported. Recently, a senior Coca-Cola executive recalled what happened at another Fortune 500 company he worked for when a young engineer from MIT was hired. Threatened by the recruit’s skills and eagerness, some managers made his life at the office uncomfortable. In short order, the recruit quit.

 
 
 
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