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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Want young employees? Get young technology

June 25, 2007

I thought I'd explored just about every purpose to which computer hardware and software would lend themselves, but Neil Taflinger of Intake magazine tossed me a new one in the May 17 issue. Technology, he says, is a tool for retaining young employees.

Could be, I suppose. Taflinger is one of those young employees he talks about, a real Gen X'er, so he might have some insight here. According to Taflinger, Gen X'ers partly judge any company they work for by whether the company's technology is up to date. Slow networks, inability to listen to music at work, and restricted Web access would presumably convince restless youngsters to find the door under the exit sign. No new blood, no new ideas, no corporate future.

I don't know that it's as simple as that, but Taflinger has a point. The post-college-age crowd is used to being able to do things on the Web they usually can't do on the job, and it must rankle. It even gets to me. I have yet to see any company in central Indiana with good collaborative technology that permits employees to get to know one another easily, the way MySpace does.

Imagine a company with a few hundred employees. A new hire, a Gen X'er, goes to work for the company. Like any smart mammal, he wants to explore his surroundings, and especially his new cubemates. He's used to being able to scan entire campuses, indeed the whole globe, looking for compatible buddies who might have worked for the Peace Corps, driven a tank during their service days, or started a support group. He'd be able to see photographs of his new friends, of their pets, their cars, their children, their spouses. He could read their blogs. He could Google their biographies. A motivated and skilled searcher could become reasonably familiar with dozens of people within his first day on the job.

Instead, what do most new employees find? Maybe a company telephone book. Sometimes it will have photos and titles. But the titles are quirky, and the official org chart is out of date, because it's kept in a Word document. Even if the org chart is current, it doesn't give any hints about all the dotted lines, unofficial jobs and phantom connections that all organizations develop.

The old paradigm in companies was silos, and you got to know only those people who affected your own silo. It's still that way in most companies. But today's Web 2.0 is eagerly dissolving social silos all over the globe. Today, that new hire can find out more about a blogger in Bangalore than he can about Aaron across the hall in accounting.

Worse, that new hire can't offer any of his skills to anyone but his immediate boss. A new hire in operations might have spent a summer interning on Capitol Hill and know the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee by his first name, but the Overseas Marketing Department will not find out about it.

The old view of the world was one person fitted to one defined job. Job descriptions were taken seriously. That view is changing slowly in many places, I have to say. Now we talk about "roles" more often than "jobs," because individuals may have to fill many roles, whatever their title. But the roles are more like temp jobs than anything else. Do something in a role, finish it, move on to the next role. Even when cross-disciplinary teams are assembled, it's usually expected that each person will stick to his or her own specialty, no matter what role is being played at the moment.

Gen X'ers are more egalitarian and universal. They're used to venting their views spontaneously in blogs, text messages and e-mails. They're used to being in touch with everyone everywhere, all the time. They tend to think of being hired more as assuming a short-term partnership than like getting married. If the company they've temporarily taken up residence within doesn't understand how people connect, how can it have any potential? These people get access to vast amounts of information outside the workplace, but have to squat inside a departmental-sized box when they come to work.

How sharp can their employer be when people barely old enough to drink are inventing MySpace and Google, and supposedly savvy businessfolk are still fumbling with e-mail attachments? Gen X'ers live on the flat world Thomas Friedman talks about in his book "The World is Flat." They're used to it. Their entertainment comes from all points of the globe. But their workplaces are still built like a collection of dusty stovepipes.

Personally, I'd give ear to Neil Taflinger and his warning. The smart kids we sent off to college have learned more than coursework. They're learned to expect more from us than we're giving them.



Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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