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Millennials and Collaborative Tech: 5 Reasons Not to Freak Out

"You'd better be ready, when those millennials start working at your company, these are the things they are going to demand."

How many sales pitches of instant messaging tools, video, collaboration portals or corporate social networking have you heard that include this idea? As the story goes, the upcoming generation of workers are "digital natives", more connected and much more comfortable in a virtualized workplace, replacing office time with FaceTime and face to face meetings with video chat. The only way to optimize their talents will be to have the environment in place that they are used to functioning in!

There is no denying that enterprise technology has rapidly advanced (with significant influence from consumer technology), but this whole concept of the millennials’ special fluency in technology adds a new facet to planning for enterprise IT. Those actually making the financial decisions (typically Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers) are told that they need to implement things that might not make complete sense to them from a business standpoint. Anyone who dares to cast a skeptical eye on any of the collaboration tools being pedaled to the enterprise is told that they did not grow up "digital" and consequently "just don't get it".

I bristle against the idea that the newest members of the workforce will "demand" specific technology and connectivity. Maybe it's because I am a parent, a "digital immigrant", or both, but would millennials honestly let a job be given to a less demanding worker while they stay at home in a familiar environment of video games and Facebook?

Here are some points to consider when making plans for virtual workspaces, unified communications and collaboration. Nothing in these points will stop enterprise IT planners in their tracks, but perhaps a different perspective will help to make sure that what you end up with actually delivers the intended results:

1. The "Better watch out, kids are so much better at technology" proposition is nothing new.
Humanity has a seemingly unlimited capacity to invent, and then be amazed by our own inventions. We are subsequently amazed by how well consumers adapt to these very inventions, especially when the consumers are younger people. Some searching of archived publications reveals statements that could have been in the newspaper last week. A 1966 Los Angeles Times report said of the generation that in 2012 is now retiring: "There has never been a generation like this. They know more than their parents and grandparents did at a similar age. They are more aware, more sophisticated." Two years later, the Los Angeles Times reported on a speech by Chief Justice Earl Warren, "that the rebelliousness of youth may be due in part to their knowing more than their parents about modern technology...a 16-year-old boy may be an expert in computers and people many years older may have to be his disciples in that field." This speech, given in 1968, inferred that all that rebelliousness of the '60s was "linked to rapid technological change which has given young people skills their elders cannot understand."

Later, in 1983, an editorial complains about the lack of investment in computer training for current office workers compared with Gen-Xers, saying, "The kids are going to be comfortable with computers no matter what society does; the growing universe of consumer electronics will see to that very nicely." I suspect if we dug back even further, "kids today and their technology" statements would be preceded by "kids today and their solid state radios." Might we even be able to dig up worries about "kids today and their mechanical toys"? New technology has been and will continue to be disruptive. Plan for it, but remember that we are not the first generation to assume that there is an unprecedented generational shift. Planning should be based on current productivity potential rather than abstract concerns about how "differently" millennials think and work.

Next page: Evolving views on "Digital Natives"

2. The current "Digital Native" hypothesis began in Academia, and in Academia its original sense of urgency has diminished.
The "digital native" theory was developed in 2001 by Marc Prensky, an advocate of digital game-based learning. Digital Natives, according to the theory, are those who were starting kindergarten or in college at the beginning of the millennium. In 2012 they now are ages 17 to 29. These students spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games and 20,000 hours watching television.

Digital Natives are contrasted with "Digital Immigrants", those who also adopt new technology, but approach it with a non-digital "accent". The concept of this accent was supported with examples such as printing out email rather than reading it onscreen, or reading program manuals rather than using online help. Students in 2001 were said to think and process information differently and to have even developed different thinking patterns. This created a gap in educational methods, which needed to be solved by creating interactive learning content, rich with graphics, fast-paced information and frequent rewards.

Educators have responded with large budgets targeting digital learning. This year, K-12 schools in the United States will spend $2.9 billion on e-learning, while Higher Education will spend over $24 billion.

It was only a matter of time before business adopted the same line of thinking. There were plenty of allusions to the workplace in education-based writing, and business publications soon followed. In 2004, when the first Digital Natives would complete college, Prensky himself wrote for Booz & Company’s Strategy+ Business magazine, applying his theory in a business context:

"This generation is better than any before at absorbing information and making decisions quickly, as well as at multitasking and parallel processing.... 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?"

Interestingly, the theory always seems to evolve into what the "young" are "into" this year. In 2001, reading/writing blogs and wikis did not fit naturally into the pre Web 2.0 requirements for graphics over text and frequent rewards required for the new thinking patterns; but by 2004, blogging had "proven the vitality of participatory journalism." Apparently it didn’t have to be all games and graphics; Digital Natives could read and write after all!

The newest entries into "must-haves" for digital natives include unified communications, video and collaboration portals. Jason Cook, Chief Architect and CTO of BT US & Canada wrote in CNN Money in March of 2012, "Modern collaborative technologies allow digital natives to accelerate the pace of work through a mix of emails, instant messages, audio, web and video conferences with colleagues. Managers might hold weekly team meetings by audio conference, while presence-enabled staff directories allow digital natives to easily check when their colleagues are available for discussions."

The digital native theory was never universally accepted in education, but by the tenth anniversary of "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," an extensive amount of research had been conducted on the subject as millennials worked their way through higher education and into the workforce. A comprehensive study by Dr. Christopher Jones and Ms. Binhui Shao of The Open University (a UK based university dedicated to distance learning) included a compilation of research on millennials in over 14 countries, including the United States. The conclusion was that "students' high levels of use and skill did not necessarily translate into preference for increased use of technology in educational contexts."

"Communication Preferences Among University Students," a May 2012 study published in the Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, included 30 business students at a Norwegian college and 41 at an American public university. Like the Open University findings, the study noted a similar disconnect:

"The modes of communication most preferred by students for social purposes are not necessarily those they prefer for school/work activities. In fact, once institutions and parents adopt a media popular with students, they often move on to new ways of interacting.... The results show that, despite the popularity of technology, these students expressed a preference for face to face communication over all other methods for both work/school and social communication."

My sister in law taught an online summer course to high school students. Two types of students participated: Some students did poorly in the spring semester and needed to make up classes to graduate. She commented that these students do 20 minutes of (online) work and think they have done enough. They don't understand the concept of putting in a full day of online work. However, other students do put in a full day. These are motivated students taking classes ahead of schedule in order to have room for additional electives during the normal school year. Maybe I led the question a little when I asked, "Would the motivated students complete their work if they had been sent home with a hard bound book?" Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes.

In Enterprise IT, we should consider what Academia has learned. They are the ones who have spent the last decade with the "digital natives" now entering the workplace. Education has level-set their expectations, but most of the chatter in Enterprise IT still assumes the original theories about millennials. We could be making IT strategy decisions based on presupposition that has been largely abandoned by its original academic champions.

Next page: Is the generation gap really that dramatic?

3. The perceived generational gap in technical proficiency is not as dramatic as advertised.
Twenty years ago I was a telecom manager for a Medicare supplemental health insurance company, serving ages 65 and older. The common wisdom was that you could not present senior citizens with a telephone "menu". Live customer service was the ideal, but many of the members grew intolerant of the long wait times when every call had to go through an operator. Some specifically stated a preference for navigating a phone menu over waiting. Why wouldn't they? We were not the only company they called. They called libraries and utility providers with menus, and they did fine.

My brother-in-law's parents are over 80 years old. In 2001, they may have been first people I knew who ditched their landline for mobile telephones, determining that it simply made economic sense. Neither had retired from a technical career, nor were they technology hobbyists. Everyone in the telecom industry was still fretting over five-nine reliability, but they just wanted to save money.

In case these seem like exceptions that prove the rule, statistical information says otherwise. This assumption of stodginess towards technology by an older generation is implicated in the millennial hypothesis by referring to a generation as "digital immigrants". E-Learning is one example of how untrue this can be. Noel Levitz, Inc., a consultancy specializing in higher education, published demographics of eLearning participants in 2011 from 108 institutions (more than 99,000 students). 55% of eLearning students were over age 35, with just 15% ages 24 and under. 7% were over age 55. Think about it: the generation that represents the majority of online students is the same generation that had trouble programming the clocks on their brand-new VCRs.

Only 15% were age 24 and younger, which is understandable. The younger demographic has a preference for attending on campus. Likewise, millennials entering the workforce are more likely to want social interaction with other employees on site. Michelle Rowan, a consultant and advocate for Enterprise teleworking programs, had a similar insight with millennials in the workforce: "While home-based positions shave 10-12 hours per week of commute time from people's lives and save employees $5,000-$10,000 annually in transport, wardrobe, meals and other related expenses, it's not for everyone. Home-based positions are limiting in terms of social interactions--it can be quite isolating at times. In addition, home-based employees have less exposure to larger corporate populations. A higher percentage of the younger demographic (i.e. Millenials) actually prefer and seek out a physical office environment. Many are shaping their career visions, and prefer as much face-to-face exposure to informal and formal mentors, colleagues, culture and infrastructure as they can attain."

If the office staff has not adopted your latest collaboration brainchild, maybe it's not because they are "old fogies". Maybe it's just a bad design, or a bad idea.

A 2012 Pew Internet research study, "Teens 2012" revealed that while teens and young adults are most likely to use a social networking site, 68% of adults up to age 49, 49% up to age 64 and 29% age over 65 also used social networking. In the same survey, teenagers said that parents were the biggest influence on their online and cell-phone behavior, and 86% of teens said they get advice about online safety from parents. This hardly implies a lack of proficiency in Internet services and technology on the part of the older generations. Is it possible that the real difference in activity is due more to personal choice than some new mindset?

Effect on productivity?

4. Technology based recreational activities do not always translate into business productivity.
It would probably not come as a surprise that as opposed to Facebook, the largest percentage of LinkedIn users in the U.S. are ages 35-54, significantly older than socially-oriented networking sites. I would bet you'll find this same variation for any tool used mostly for business context. For example, millennials send and receive 50 times the number of daily text messages as older cell phone users. However, there are an insignificant number of millennials using web conferencing tools to work on group assignments despite the proliferation of free conferencing services.

Sure, there are instances where e-learning is delivered as part of a school program, but meanwhile, online collaboration (desktop sharing and web conferencing) have become almost standard among the older generations' workforce. For the college-aged, a Skype or FaceTime session may be sufficient for a virtual visit when you are short on gas money, but for "real work", face-to-face interaction is still preferred.

Internal instant messaging (IM) is customary at most large enterprises. A recent consulting engagement gave me an opportunity to work at a company with a comparably younger work force than most of the organizations I have contact with. Their corporate policy strongly advocated use of collaboration tools and online workspaces, yet nearly every employee kept their IM status in a "busy" state. This does not mean they did not IM. On the contrary, they used it frequently to communicate with co-workers in cubicles right next to them. With four-foot-high cubicle walls the norm in most offices, IM means privacy for conversations between coworkers. This might not be a bad use for instant messaging, but it is a far cry from the "find an expert" scenarios depicted to decision makers when they bought the tools.

This brings us back to the Academy of Educational Leadership Journal study that stated, "Once institutions and parents adopt a media popular with students, they often move on to new ways of interacting". A cashier in a coffee shop I frequent echoed this sentiment, mentioning he had quit Facebook. I asked him why, and in his own words, "Too much drama now that my parents and everyone else are on it". Why do we think that this same generation will be eager to use a corporate sponsored social network platform, where every comment is archived into a searchable knowledge base?

5. The preferred mode of communication among millennials will change before we can integrate it into the workplace.
In the last decade, we have seen the groundbreaking new mode of interaction change from video games to blogging, then to texting, then social networking and now video. The Facebook-abandoning coffee guy also mentioned, "I use Instagram now. I just send pictures to my friends without having to read everyone else's problems. Way better than Facebook."

On the other hand, if you provide your existing users with tools that work for them right now, it's likely they’ll use them long enough for the investment to pay off.

A while back, my 17-year-old niece was out with our family at an antique and collectables flea market. She happily texted on her smartphone as she walked to each booth looking for one specific item. She wants a rotary dial telephone in a pretty color, to talk on when she’s in her room.

Tell me, how are you going to plan your IT architecture around that?