Gen Y – or Gen Why?

09 Jul 2012

There seems to have been a rash of articles, discussions and commentaries around the need for organisations to adapt themselves to the needs of the new generation of workers coming in to the workplace. These 20-somethings, also known as “Gen Y” are generally profiled as being at the forefront of social media usage, have moved away from e-mail and are part of the commoditisation of IT.  Therefore, the commentators say that to attract the Gen Ys, organisations have to change the way that they work wholesale to provide an environment that the Gen Y will find attractive – otherwise they will just throw their arms in the air and slope off to some better employer.

But hang on.  The first thing to remember is that the Gen Y brigade is not the first to go through a major change.  I entered the employment market in 1981 – the year that the PC first came to the market.  I was pretty tech savvy and literate, and did try to make sure that I got a job in an environment which was forward looking.  My mother, who was in the vanguard of those able to use a manual adding machine at extreme speed was preceded by those who understood how to use a telephone, and those before them who knew how to use an abacus.

Did this force organisations to change how they worked to fit in with the workforce?  Hardly.  The technology was brought in because it was good for the business, and those who were good at the use of the technology did well in the market place.  Those who weren’t, struggled.

But, the real issue here is this idea that possible employees will just walk elsewhere if an employer does not provide everything that they believe is their due.  According to February 2012 figures, 21% of all graduates who had left university the year before in the UK were still unemployed by the end of the year, as were 26% of 16 year olds who left school with GCSEs.  This gives an unemployed workforce of around 1 million.

If you look at other countries, it can be even worse – in Spain and Greece, over 50% of under 24s are unemployed.

With existing workforces of the late-stage baby boomers and Gen X workers, trying to move them over to a social media-centric, non-email way of work is not easy. If it is done just to make sure that some surly 21 year old who believes that it is their God-given right to be able to use Facebook at work feels at home, then I think the majority of organisations would find themselves facing a mass exodus of their existing – experienced – workforce. They will also still have problems with the Gen Y incomers who would, with little understanding of the commercial world, be security nightmares and add little in real value to the business.

However, please don’t take me to be Ned Ludd wrecking machines or a 16th century Dutchman throwing his clogs into the weaving looms.  I am all for progress – but progress for the right reasons.  Progress for progress’ sake is a road to ruin – but the use of new technologies because they are good for the organisation is what everyone should be aiming for.

Therefore, before any organisation decides that social networking is for them, it has to be asked “for what reason”?  If social networking enables an organisation to reach out to its target constituents, and that this can be done in an integrated manner with existing approaches, then go for it.  However, there may well be many within that target group who are not happy with social media, and would prefer to carry on being dealt with via the web, email or the telephone.  This is the biggest problem with technology – very little that comes through as being “new” ever replaces any of the “old” that has gone before it.  A social media specialist who refuses to accept that email and integrated websites are still very important is of negative use to an organisation – they will just go off and create new siloes of information.

However, organisations that insist on staying with the old because they do not understand the new will find the competition that do understand social media and how bring your own device (BYOD) can be successfully embraced will start to pass them by.

The Gen Ys coming through are essentially no different to any other group that has gone before them.  When we entered the employment market, we all felt that we could change the world, that our bosses were completely past it and didn’t understand the new world being ushered in by whatever the technology de jour was.

Those technologies that were good for business succeeded, those that were just a spike on the technology continuum faded and died.  Those employees who understood what was good and what was bad, and were capable of flexing their skills to embrace what had gone before and also what came along were the gold nuggets that ended up being head-hunted to very successful positions.

So – don’t fall for the Siren cry that everything must change in order to attract the Gen Y.  Look at what technology is coming through, find someone who understands it enough to explain what the promises and problems are from a business viewpoint, and then implement what will help the business in an integrated and inclusive manner.

This will make your organisation successful.  And, for some strange reason, success tends to attract talent – those Gen Ys that are worth it will search you out.

Clive Longbottom, Service Director, Business Process Analysis, Quocirca

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