Learning from the Internet Generation

By Jim Selman | Bio

My daughter wrote a blog yesterday (A World of Performance) about how technology can move us further and further away from human-to-human connections. I thought “Wow, I would never have thought about that at her age”.  Her reflections about what is happening to us as human beings were insightful, but also very useful to me. I have been promoting use of technology to connect people and never imagined that it could also divide us. Now I can be more rigorous and prudent in balancing the risks and rewards.

The idea that we learn from younger people isn’t particularly a revelation, but we cannot remind ourselves of this fact too often. To forget—to stop listening—is to fall into the arrogance of age and the belief that we ‘know’ what’s going on or what we should do or why the world is the way it is. If we’ve learned anything over the past 50 years or so, it is that things are moving so fast that to conclude anything about anything is probably naïve and if you are in business, probably dangerous.

I was in a meeting this week hosted by one of my clients where a noted European futurist spoke at length about all the trends going on in the world that will affect business in the coming 5 to 10 years. At the top of his list was what he called the 4G phenomenon—four generations all in the workspace at the same time but having very different values, beliefs and practices. He noted that the youngest generation are generally committed to having relationships and conversations with the most senior generation while those in the middle are struggling to compete with the young, while aspiring to top roles in the future that may or may not be open to them.

The audience for this talk were Human Resource professionals, mostly in the ‘middle’ generation category. The level of discomfort was palpable, since on one hand it was obvious that the implications of the scenario being presented would make obsolete most of the systems and conventional wisdom that has been at the heart of corporate human resources work for the past several decades. On the other hand, most of the participants in the meeting were highly respected and responsible executives who saw their role in part to assure stability, predictability and control over the organization’s human assets. The whole enterprise was designed for the effective management of human resources (things), yet they are now confronted with a whole generation that refuses to be labeled and objectified. Add to this a growing scarcity of talent and there is suddenly a whole new ball game.

The fact is that the Boomers and the Gen Y folks have a lot in common. We both grew up spoiled and came into the workplace at a time where the demand for talent was (and is) much larger than supply. Competition for good people is increasing almost daily and is happening globally. Salaries for managers, good technical talent and professionals are becoming pretty close to the same no matter where in the workplace one is working. If older people wish to continue working and are willing learn from, coach and collaborate with younger workers, then the opportunities are unlimited.

© 2008 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.