In the 1980s a powerful new communication tool invaded corporate life. It undermined hierarchy, expanded communication channels and enabled huge gains in productivity. The technology was email and its arrival aroused great concerns about security and authority in C suites everywhere. Older leaders refused to use the technology, or at best, told their secretaries to treat it like regular mail, handing it to them printed on paper in their daily inbox.
Younger workers, from the Baby Boom Generation, judged the skill of their bosses based upon their willingness to communicate in email. Boomers also used the technology to create peer networks where they exchanged information about job opportunities and plotted how best to make over organizations they found hide bound and hopelessly out of touch with modern technology. Today, Boomers are in charge, email is a ubiquitous part of corporate life, even following workers home on their smart phones, and no one questions its effectiveness and efficiency.
No one that is except Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, who are now entering the workforce in numbers greater than even the Baby Boom Generation did three and four decades ago. The comfort and facility of Millennials in the use of Internet communication technologies has led many to call people of their age“digital natives,” ready to text or tweet each moment of their young lives. Turning the libertarian, individual autonomy values of the Internet’s creators upside down, Millennials have used social networks to bring their friends, and the rest of the world, closer in communities bound together by common interests, not geography. Having transformed educational and entertainment institutions by insisting on the primacy of peer-to-peer communications, the first wave of Millennials is now entering the workforce and bringing their communication technology revolution with them.
For Millennials, email is a slow, old-fashioned way of communicating, lacking the immediacy and transparency of Instant Messaging (IM). Facebook provides a much more robust way to organize Millennial’s daily dialogue and life (which are the same thing for this generation), than MS Outlook even when its on a Blackberry. Facebook also has the weakest functionality of any email system in the market, which hasn’t stopped it from becoming the de facto contact management system for most Millennials. The generation uses social networks to explore ideas on how to solve any problem presented to them with all of their friends and can’t imagine limiting those questions to only those working in the same company, any more than they can abide China attempting to censor Google searches.
So what has been the reaction of most corporate CIOs to this phenomenon? Much of it resembles the response to email by corporate executives thirty years ago. Citing security risks and the need to protect corporate intellectual property, the use of social networks is routinely restricted or prohibited out right. Older bosses sneer at anyone on Facebook, suggesting it is a drain on productivity and a threat to personal privacy. IMing is permitted, so long as it is done within corporate guidelines, but its inability to convey Microsoft Office attachments makes it less likely to be used in decision-making discussions. Meanwhile, the potential gains in creativity and innovation that would come from having each employee incorporate the ideas of hundreds of their friends in actively solving the company’s problems are ignored. Cut off from the constant chatter of texts and homemade video, corporate hierarchies are as clueless about what this generation is thinking as Boomer bosses were decades ago.
But this kind of outmoded behavior will also fade away. Over the next decade, all of the Millennial generation will come of age. Members of the generation will represent one out of every three adult Americans by 2020. Corporations that wish to survive, let alone succeed, will have to align their governance practices and technology architectures to accommodate the way this emerging generation works.
In a decade or so, CIO’s will look back at this time of transition and smile at the antiquated way business was transacted before mobile computing and social networks became commonplace. For those old enough to remember, it will seem very similar to the way business was transformed by another, now obsolete, technology, email. Millennials and their Internet based communication technologies will have disrupted corporate life, devolving power to the edges of the organization and creating a more group-oriented, transparent culture in tune with the generation’s beliefs. As a result, companies will be much more successful than they are today and the country’s economy will be a lot better than it is now.