Forward-thinking organizations need to persuade Net Generation talent to join their ranks
By Don Tapscott,
Chairman, nGenera Insight, Author,
Adjunct Professor, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
Want to know what the most effective corporations of tomorrow will look like? Look at those that are most successful at attracting young workers today.
Even with the current economic downturn, we’re on the brink of a major war for talent, as many companies that rely on knowledge workers already know. The tables have turned. Today, there may be a surplus of labour, but not of talent.
Twenty years ago, when college grads poured into the work force, companies had their pick of the best and the brightest. Employers had the power to choose; employees were grateful to get a job and did what they could to keep it, and the last thing on their mind would be to suggest radical new ways of working and managing a company. But in the next 10 years, as middle-aged and older employees retire, there won’t be enough young employees — I call them the Net Generation — to fill up the management spots being vacated.
If you persuade them to work for your company, these young people will bring with them a natural affinity for technology that seems uncanny. They instinctively turn first to the Net to communicate, understand, learn and find. If you’re older than 30, you probably think you are as cyber-sophisticated as the next person — shopping online, using Wikipedia, sending 100 e-mails a day and doing the BlackBerry prayer every 10 minutes. But compared to the kids, most of us are Luddites.
To the Net Generation, e-mail is old-school. They use the phone to text incessantly, surf the Web, find directions, take pictures, make videos and collaborate. They seem to be on Facebook every chance they get, including at work. Instant messaging or Skype is always running in the background. The typical middle-aged adult today grew up watching more than 22 hours of TV a week. They just watched, zoned out. When the Net Generation watches TV, they treat it as background Muzak while they hunt for information, play games and chat with friends online. They can do this because their brains are different. As a result of having grown up digital, they have better active working memory and better switching abilities.
These young people are perfectly suited for the new workplace, as yesterday’s static, publish-and-browse Internet has become Web 2.0 — a participatory Internet with new tools such as wikis, blogs, tags, collaborative filtering, digital brainstorms, telepresence, RSS feeds and more. Youth expect to collaborate, wherever they are. They insist on speed. They're innovative by nature. They think work — the work itself — should be fun and challenging.
These Net Geners expect a conversation, not a one-way lecture. So now, employers have to think about a reciprocal relationship with their employees. This can mean customizing jobs, as Deloitte is doing. "We believe that [customizing jobs] is a new strategy for the work force of the 21st century, and the work force of the 21st century is different than the work force in the last century," says CEO Jim Quigley.
One of the best examples of a company that understands the value of Net Generation thinking is electronics retailing giant Best Buy. Its CEO, Brad Anderson, says that the most important people in the company are the tens of thousands of young people in blue shirts who work in Best Buy stores. Mr. Anderson told me these young employees “are closest to our customers, are most like our customers, and their culture is the culture of the 21st century Best Buy.”
Mr. Anderson says his job is not so much to make decisions but rather to create the conditions in which his young customer-facing employees can self organize and help re-invent the company. The company has an online social network where 25,000 young employees regularly gather to brainstorm and share insights. Management pays attention. Mr. Anderson says he is in the business of “unleashing the power of Net Generation human capital.”
Net Geners are savvy, confident, upbeat, open-minded, creative and independent, but they can be challenging to manage. To meet their demand for more learning opportunities, frequent feedback, greater work-life balance and stronger workplace relationships, successful organizations must learn to alter their culture and management approaches, while continuing to respect the needs of older employees.
But rather than embracing their culture and tools we often do the opposite. Companies ban social networks and try to supervise young people in traditional ways. This is creating what I call a generational firewall that needs to be broken down. Young people need to learn from experienced managers and, for the first time, vice versa – so two-way mentoring programs make sense.
In addition to being chairman of Texas-based think tank nGenera, Mr. Tapscott has written 13 widely read books on the impact of the Internet on society, including Paradigm Shift, The Digital Economy and Wikinomics. His 1996 book Growing Up Digital defined the Net Generation. Its sequel, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, was published in November 2008. He is also an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @dtapscott