EXPERT ADVICE

Remodeling Corporate Culture for the Digital Era

While the Millennial generation hoards the headlines that declare the latest trends in technology andtheir applications to the workplace, it’s worth remembering that it was the Baby Boomers who putthe “e” in email, e-learning and e-commerce. The foundations of the Digital Era that forever changedthe way we work, shop, learn and play were built by innovators born from the mid-1940s through the1950s.

The past half century has been a period of building great businesses founded on technology-driven processes that run by the clock and the calendar. In the new millennium, however, technologyhas been redefined — as has the employee. It’s no coincidence that employees entering the workforcetoday wear no wristwatch and carry no calendar in their wallet.

As the great entrepreneurs of the Boomer generation flock to retirement resorts, the great innovatorsof Gen Y move into their positions, a joyously different breed of human being in a corporate landscapewhere Millennials seem strange to management and managers seem hopelessly antiquated to their newemployees.

Many organizations traditionally have tracked progress and success in terms of hours billed, ratescharged, quantities delivered or facilities expanded. Millennials, on the other hand, can’t grasp theconcept of a “clock watcher.” For the most part, they do not distinguish between work hours andpersonal hours — it’s all one life for Millennials.

Always On

That’s because they carry the digital devices they use athome into their work. Their preference is to work whenever and wherever they are most productive,and technology has allowed them to succeed in that pursuit, with handheld devices that place an officefull of capabilities in their pocket. The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) phenomenon is creating securityheadaches for IT staff, but it’s helping 21st century companies experience their own boom.

Millennials shun museum pieces like land lines, conference room calendars, time sheets and “The 6:00News.” Rather, they thrive on instant messaging, Skype and Kinect, social networks and texts. Morethan any previous generation, they are totally comfortable with talking to strangers and colleagues halfa world away — they probably already are friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter.

Social networks,furthermore, provide a communications path for a generation who could care less about privacy issuesand readily declare and share every aspect of their lives, from breakfast to business proposals.

“Communicating” is not a function or activity for Millennials — it’s an environment. It’s just alwayspresent, always available, and always necessary. These workers may never have heard a dial tone. Theygrew up with a mobile phone on their belt and at their ear.

These are the students who drove Englishteachers nuts with insertions like “IMHO” and “LOL” throughout their compositions. They are the firstgeneration in a century not to plead with parents to take them to the Department of Motor Vehicles ontheir 16th birthday — and to buy them a car, as well. These young adults live the majority of their lives inthe virtual world, and they don’t need to drive to stores, to movie theaters or even to schools. It’s all “e-vailable” to them on that device in their pocket.

The desire for constant connection among the Millennial workforce, however, is exactly thecharacteristic most valuable for businesses that operate globally. Having a workforce that delights ininstantaneous communication, that is always on and always reaching out to new social contacts, canfurnish a tremendous competitive advantage to businesses today. Smart businesses, therefore, areplacing a priority on ways to attract these upcoming, technology-driven workers, as well as ways tomodify the corporate culture to help ensure that they stay.

Different Motivations, Different Rewards

Overriding these efforts of business managers should be three considerations that may requiredramatically new ways of defining work ethic and work processes:

  1. Finding ways for employees to engage with the company will become paramount. Researchstudies reveal that when employees are engaged, businesses experience better customerservice, more product innovation and improved productivity. When businesses measureengagement and determine how best to improve that measure, managers are better able toensure that every worker understands and is focused on his or her value to the overriding goalsof the company. Engagement helps drive employees toward corporate objectives because theybecome a challenge to be met with technology.
  2. Managers and supervisors need to accept that the activities and rewards that motivateMillennials are different from the motivations of past generations. Above all, Millennialsneed effective communication methods and a corporate culture that values them for theirexpertise, rather than for compliance with traditional processes. Employers should encourageMillennials to bring their own devices to work — and then collaborate with the IT departmentto accommodate them. Employees could be rewarded for posting to Facebook and Twitterand using those networks for collaboration among offices and globally. The corporate culturemay need to be flipped to reward risk-taking instead of safety. Many offices in progressivecompanies today look more like a coffeehouse or a campus union than a cube farm; Gen Yemployees prefer to work wherever they want in a manner that is both casual and collaborative.
  3. Accountability still matters, but the way we measure it needs to change. Handing out certificatesfor perfect on-time attendance needs to yield to rewarding perfect online projects. Productivitymay need to be measured by the output of digital endeavors instead of the hours recorded on atimesheet.

Organizations can find help in reshaping their corporate culture and work processes from consultingfirms that have studied operational efficiency in workplaces with generational differences. Thesefirms have created programs to make the transition easier and more effective. Most important for themanager, however, is the need simply to realize that the world has changed. It’s time to auction thebulletin boards and notepads on eBay and prepare our businesses for a digital workforce and a differentway of managing our business.

John Tobin is national general manager for Slalom Consulting and speaks with customers every dayabout their organization's efficiency and effectiveness in relation to business and technology solutions.He was named one of 2011's top 25 consultants by Consulting Magazine.

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