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Follow Generational Clues to Collaboration Success

As Millennials make their mark, and with Generation Z coming up quickly behind them, intergenerational research has become a thing -- and it’s something we all need to pay attention to. The implications for marketers are obvious, as the buying behaviors of digital natives are much different from older generations, and that’s where much of this type of research is focused.

Closer to our world, there’s a different set of needs to understand, namely around how digital natives use communications technology in the workplace. Compared to consumer behaviors, the research on that front is fairly thin, and even less well understood is how digital natives will behave when moving into decision-making roles for these technologies. That area should be of intense interest to collaboration vendors, as the buying criteria and the decision-making process will likely differ with this cohort from older generations.

I can’t do an exhaustive analysis here, but I do want to share some takeaways from a fascinating keynote at the recent BroadSoft Connections conference. While BroadSoft’s transition into the Cisco fold was the big story at Connections, as covered here and here, kudos to the conference planning team for tapping Jason Dorsey for a keynote. Jason is the president and co-founder of The Center for Generational Kinetics, a research firm with a particular focus on Gens Y and Z.

Jason covered a lot of ground during his fast-paced, high-energy presentation, and he did a great job showing how Millennials and Gen Z are different from previous generations as well as from each other. This is actually my first important takeaway. If you’re looking to discern how workplace demographics are evolving, understand that you have to view these two groups distinctly rather than as one. While it’s tempting -- or just easier -- to view all digital natives as a homogeneous group, that’s going to lead to poor decisions around which collaboration technologies to invest in.

To make sure you’re following along, the base birth year for Gen Z is 1996, and to make this real for the audience, Jason noted that most of this group has no recollection of 9/11. This may seem like yesterday for many of us, but not Gen Z. The preceding generations are bracketed as follows: Millennials, 1977-1996; Gen X, 1965-1976; Boomers, 1946-1964.

With these in mind, one of the core challenges facing IT decision-makers is to deploy the right mix of collaboration tools that have relevance across the various generations in the organization. Clearly, a start-up bootstrapped by under-30s will have a different set of collaboration needs than an enterprise in a mature industry with a healthy mix of workers across all four of these generations.

Once you accept that Millennials and Gen Z are different, the rest of this post will make more sense. What follows are some interesting research findings for each, and then I conclude with the implications I’m seeing for collaboration.

Takeaways for Millennials (aka Gen Y)

  • Jason isn’t alone in saying this is the largest demographic in the workplace, so take note of that reality. It’s not quite their world yet, but it’s starting to feel that way, and will most definitely be theirs as they move into decision-making roles.
  • Related to that, he noted that Millennials are risk-averse, and have come into the workforce with less debt than their parents did. He largely attributes this to “delayed adulthood” -- Millennials live at home longer, start their working lives later, and are careful about spending. It remains to be seen how this will impact their collaboration buying decisions, but the characteristic of being risk-averse may be a clue, and bears watching.
  • Millennials aren’t really all that tech-savvy; rather, they’re “tech-dependent.” That was an aha! moment as digital immigrants -- you know who you are -- instinctively assume the former, especially based on what their kids are doing. Millennials are certainly comfortable with technology, but the dependency marker is a subtle difference, with the point being they know how to use technology, but don’t really have a deep understanding of technology. This isn’t surprising given how ease of use is first-principle for consumer technology, and that naturally carries over into the workplace. In contrast, Gen X workers are the real tech leaders, since they came up before the cloud and needed a working understanding of both hardware and software, Jason pointed out. To him, these workers are the “glue in the workplace” -- they’re the ones who fix the problems with workplace technology, not Millennials. This may not be that relevant for collaboration, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Takeaways for Gen Z

  • Jason was a bit short on details here, but characterized Gen Z as savers, not spenders. They shop at thrift stores and are averse to taking on college debt. Unlike Millennials, who are entering mid-career with money to spend, Gen Z is rooted in the gig economy where real jobs are getting hard to come by. In that regard they’ll make more loyal employees, at least those lucky enough to land jobs, Jason noted.
  • Thinking ahead to when this cohort moves into decision-making roles, he also pointed out that they are non-linear thinkers. Translation for collaboration vendors -- old-school sales approaches that follow a linear process where you explain how the technology works, how it fits into your network, how IT needs to manage it, how end users will experience it, etc., don’t work. That’s the wrong approach for Gen Z -- “…show them the last step first, just like the way they play video games. They start by seeing how the game ends, then they go back and learn how to play it.” So, they need to understand the outcomes first -- how collaboration will make workers more productive -- and if that resonates, then they’ll want to know how the technology works. A Gen Z sales person will natively understand this, but everyone else will need to adapt their approach with this crowd.
  • Jason referenced a current report of theirs, “The State of Gen Z 2018,” but didn’t cite any findings. I downloaded the report, and discovered some notable things about how Gen Z uses technology among the broader discussion of their consumer habits. Namely:
    • Gen Z is mobile-centric -- 95% have smartphones; remember, this group falls into the tender age range of 13-22
    • More than half are on their smartphones five hours a day, and 26% are on more than 10 hours a day
    • 29% are on their smartphones after midnight, every night -- they’re constantly connected
    • 31% are uncomfortable being away from their phones for 30 minutes or less
    • 42% get highly stressed when someone touches their phone without permission -- whoa -- it’s a highly personal and private experience
    • Social media and the Internet are their trusted go-to sources for almost everything -- Facebook for checking or creating group events, Snapchat for sending or sharing, Instagram for following brands, and YouTube for learning about products
    • They’re informed buyers, with 27% reading three to four reviews before buying -- online of course -- and another 21% reading five to six reviews
    • Gen Z relies heavily on friends -- and strangers -- for buying decisions; 46% follow 10 or more “influencers” on social media -- putting trust in people they don’t actually know
    • 52% follow three or more brands via social media -- for Gen Z, this must be seen as a bona fide marketing channel

Collaboration Implications

As Jason coyly stated, these findings are “clues” to understanding these younger generations, and of course, the full story will emerge when hiring his firm to do a custom study. We all have to sell ourselves, so I can’t begrudge him, but even these few clues suggest implications for collaboration.

First, as outlined above, the sales approach for collaboration will need to change. Hiring younger sales people who will natively relate to younger buyers is a good start, but the most important thing is to understand this different buying psychology. Another aspect Jason emphasized was the need to see each Gen Zer as a unique individual, and not stuff them all into a generalized “box.” When talking to them along these lines, and showing how applications make it easy for them to have personalized experiences, they’ll see that you understand them.

Second, these clues should provide further validation that first-generation UC offerings are woefully inadequate for what’s coming. For a long time now, I’ve been saying that if UC was invented from scratch today, it would look a lot like Slack -- and as such, it’s not surprising to see how successful it’s been. Despite the fact that technology seems to change every few months, product development cycles take years, and that means the collaboration solutions that Gen Z will need should be well along now in their R&D cycles.

Based on the above data points, those offerings clearly need to be mobile-first, and social channels need to be part of the mix. This also means that marketing efforts to drive both collaboration adoption and usage need a social media element. I haven’t seen that yet from the vendors, but I think these clues are telling us plenty, and if you see me as an influencer, then hey, all of this must be true.

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