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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Web 2.0 and Generational Uptake

Are there generational differences in business that result in operational challenges? You bet! Let me explain.

I recently attended a wonderful seminar hosted by Kim Huggins, Owner and President of K HR Solutions
on the subject of Generations at Work. Since the event was sponsored and promoted by my friends at the Eastern Technology Council and Tracey Welson-Rossman of Chariot Solutions, I was eager to attend. What I saw on the reception table when I walked in was quite amusing.

Four large face pictures on display appropriately set the stage for our discussion. The first was of a gentleman in his 60s with a quote under his photo reading “Hello.” The second face shot was a woman in her late 40s saying, “Hi.” The third was a man in his 30s saying “Hey there.” And the last was a “young man” in his early 20s with orange spiked hair with a caption that read, “Wazzup.”

They are referred to as the Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen XY-ers, and Millennials respectively. And, we had a lot of fun discussing topics like personality, expectations, and preferences of each group in the work force. Everyone smirked discussing the tone of emails across the generations and particularly the grammatical dumbing-down influence of instant messaging. LOL. (Sorry, had to throw that in. One woman reported that one of her employees often used the phrase, “IDK”.) Don’t know what that means? Ask a Millennial.

But, I began thinking about the inhibitors to more rapid uptake of Web 2.0 technologies in the workforce, particularly large companies, and it hit me that these generational “diversities” played a very large part. I immediately recalled a comment a gentleman from a very large financial services company on Wall Street said to me following a seminar
there in June hosted by myself and Don Tapscott. The financial services VP told me that they love Web 2.0 technologies because they allowed so many more people in their company to collaborate, but, those technologies weren’t being used that much – the primary users were only the new hires and more junior personnel.

Millennials grew up with technology. There was never a pre-Internet for them. Instant access to information anywhere is “normal” to these folks. Furthermore, they (along with their younger GenXY peers) have a much more “flat world” view of life, including organizational “hierarchies”. Their view of management is not hierarchical and their style and tone is not necessarily adjusted based on the level or title of others in the company.

One woman spoke about a CEO who toured one of his engineering labs to greet the “troops”. During his walk-through, the CEO stopped to say hello to one of the junior engineers. After casual “greetings” the junior engineer asked the CEO where he lived. After the CEO responded, the engineer genuinely responded with, “Hey, that’s the same town I live in. Maybe we can car pool to work some days.”

The way the different generations “expect” to collaborate is diverse. Is that good or bad? Depends on who you ask. But, if you are a company that employs (or engages with) multiple generations and you’d like to collaborate more with them, you need to think through how best to make that happen.

I know many companies who think, “OK, we’ve got this blog or wiki set up. Now we can start engaging more with our suppliers and employees.” Or, “If we install this SharePoint environment, we’ll really be able to start collaborating much more effectively.” But, it doesn’t work that way.

The technology that is out there around Web 2.0 is spectacular. There are so many great tools for collaborating including SharePoint as well as many open source solutions like SuiteTwo and Jive to name just a couple. But the tools alone aren’t enough. It’s the culture that makes the biggest difference. And, since culture can’t be mandated but must rather be lived, this challenge is one that takes some time, cultivation, and visible support from all levels.

Certainly the generational gaps are not the only factor influencing the uptake of Web 2.0 and more “globalized” collaboration in companies. But, I’m convinced it does play a large part. And, the most successful companies are those that can tap into the collective wisdom of all their employees, partners, suppliers, and other constituencies.

Sun is a very open blogging company, including their CEO Jonathan Schwartz who publishes his own blog and freely accepts public comments (sometimes harsh and quite critical). That may seem like an amazingly open position for such a “high-ranking” person to take, but if I’m not mistaken, Jonathan is 42 years old – which puts him at the tail end of Gen XY range and not quite a Baby Boomer. So, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that he is on the front line of CEOs who blog.

The companies who can create such a culture will have a huge advantage over those who can’t. So, to close this blog entry with another set of face shot comments from Kim Huggins’ seminar:

Traditionalist – “Thank you very much.”
Baby Boomer – “Thank you.”
Gen XY-er – “Thanx.”
Millennial – “Cool.”

Amusing footnote: Generational differences were not the only diversity component that was discussed during that seminar. Besides seeing the four “generational” face pictures when I walked in the room, it became quite apparent that I was the only male in a room of about 50 or so women. Yep, the event was also part of the Women’s Leadership Networking Group. Hmm, guess I should have paid more attention to that little detail.