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Executives: Don’t try to change the Net Generation

By on January 12, 2010 in Announcements, Culture, Digital divide/s with 0 Comments

Bob Mason and I conducted a study about how executives in organizations perceive the entrance of the “net generation” into the workplace. Researchers (see Tapscott for example) refer to the Net Generation as the generation of people born between 1978-1994. They label them as such because of the researchers’ perceptions of this generation as growing up immersed in a digital environment. Other similar terms are Generation Y, Millennials, and Digital Natives. In this post I won’t enter into the big debate of whether indeed this generation mostly digital, nor into the criticism that classifying a whole generation can ignore individual differences and characteristics. Instead I will focus on the perceptions of executives of this generation.

The following table compares the set of values, attitudes, and styles of the net generation and baby boomers as perceived in the literature. Many of the differences highlighted in this table can serve as the genesis for potential issues and tensions as members of the net generation join organizations.

Behaviors and Values Net Generation (Birth year- 1978-1994) Baby Boomers (Birth year- 1946-1964)
Work Style Multitasking Time management
Learning Style Learn from experience Learn from instruction
Collaboration Collaborative Independent
Motivations Positive reinforcement Competition
View on Authority Respect for others is earned Respect for authority
Structure Decentralized, non-hierarchical, inclusive Centralized, hierarchical, exclusive
Information Access Access for all Access to those in power

Our study targeted 160 Chief Information Officers (CIOs), Chief Technical Officers (CTOs), and other executives. We used three different methods to collect data on reactions to a scenario highlighting the above differences: interviews, focus groups, and an online survey (see here for more information).

We identified 10 main issues which executives perceived as tensions that occur due to the entrance of net geners to the workforce. The main tension was around the issue of ‘organizational culture’. Additionally, we found that four main clusters of organizational mechanisms were used to address these tensions: project management, technology, human resources and policy. (I am not going to elaborate this part of the research and you can see more about this in the paper we wrote).

I would focus in this post on the types of management strategy applied by the executives to address what they perceived as tensions with net geners. These strategies differ in terms of the net generation’s and executives’ involvement, the decision approach of the executives, the duration and scope of the change, and the implications for resources. The next table shows this range of strategies and the percentage of executives using each. Note that because executives use multiple and mixed strategies in different situations, the sum of their responses totals to more than 100%.  We further found that some executives prefer instead of adopting one of the strategies in the table to “wait and see” and not take any actions until it is necessary.

Types of Strategies and Frequency of Use By Executives

Strategy Description % using this strategy*
Coercive/ Authoritative “It is my way or the highway.” In this strategy the organization prefers to enforce existing policies with minimal changes. This strategy is one-sided and top-down driven. 52%
Cooptation “Manipulative.” In this strategy the organization influence and manipulate employees from the net generation to accept the existing organizational culture and policies through different mechanisms (e.g., socialization). This is less direct, but still a one-sided and top-down driven strategy. It may involve ostensible participation, but the goals and results are similar to the coercive strategy. 64%
Responsive “Flexible firefighting.” This is a deliberate strategy that reacts to individual issues as they arise. The choices are context sensitive; the decisions are based on tradeoffs made unilaterally by the executives’ assessment of the costs and benefits of different alternatives. 52%
Negotiative “Making compromises.” In this strategy executives negotiate and make tradeoffs on critical issues with the participation of the net generation. 40%
Participatory “Let’s play together.” This strategy involves full engagement and collaboration by all stakeholders in the organization’s vision and operational processes. 32%
Transformative “Melting Pot.” In this strategy the organization changes its structure and norms to something new. 28%

*% refers to percent of executives’ (N=160) responses in the named strategy classification.  Since respondents can use multiple strategies, the total is >100%

The results illuminate the growing awareness of executives on the recurring nature of the tensions with members of the net generation. This growing awareness causes them to address the tensions in a more systematic way. These strategies can be also mapped along an axis corresponding to the degree of organizational structural change.

Degree of Organizational Structural Change

Two phenomena should be discussed here:

1) the priority executives give to top-down strategies as opposed to bottom-up ones.

2) the preference of executives to control either behavior or technology determinants while ignoring values and norms, which we believe form the third apex of an integral triad.

Choosing Top-Down Strategies as a Priority

Top-Down Strategies

In Top-Down strategies, executives dictate the boundaries, goals, and, to a large extent, the outcomes. The above figure illustrates the prevalence of top-down strategies for dealing with the net generation: the Coercive, Cooptation, Responsive and, to some degree, the Negotiative. Here is a quote from an executive that exemplifies the top-down approach:

“Must set very clear goals/expectations. Need to manage and micro-manage more than with previous generation of employees. Need more mentoring by senior people to train new employees on how to produce high-quality outputs.”

Management literature suggests that top-down strategies may be ineffective in dealing with changes in an organizational context especially over the long-term. This could apply to the net generation as well, which may require organizations to perform some changes on their behalf. In the long-term, top-down strategies have the potential to stimulate higher levels of resistance to attempts at control, especially in periods of change.  Conversely, creating and maintaining a cohesive organizational culture in a process that involves all stakeholders has higher chances for long-term success.  In the near term, a top-down strategy can alienate the younger employees, decreasing the chances to build a shared and common vision, mission, and organizational culture and increasing turnover. Finally, addressing challenges in a top-down manner often requires dictating behavior uncommon to the net generation members. This is an example of treating the symptoms and not the underlying cause. The net generation initially might be compliant, but the gaps in behaviors and values remain. Organizational behavior literature agrees that gaps in behavior and values in most cases create a dissonance, that later is translated into the need for change. Leaders are likely to find they need to address the same fundamental challenges again unless they are resolved at a more fundamental level.

Moving with the TVB (Technology-Values-Behavior) Triad

A “generation gap” is not a new phenomenon. The values and behavioral norms of succeeding generations have always differed in some degree from past ones. Also, it is generally accepted that information technology shapes many organizational norms, values and behavior, and the reverse is also true. Additionally, groups take technology and appropriate it to their own needs. None of this is new.

What is new is the extent, timing, speed and the closeness of this recursive relationship between information technology and the net generation’s values and behavior.   We believe that understanding and resolving the tensions arising from perceptions about the net generation can only be achieved if we use a lens that considers technology, values, and behavior as a closely coupled triad of factors affecting the perceived organizational tensions.

One of the things we observed in the data is that executives in many cases seek to control either behavior or technology determinants to resolve tensions. Decomposing this triad into separate components and trying to resolve issues by treating only one component at a time may not be effective due to the close relationship between these concepts. Moreover, in many cases executives ignore the ‘norms and values’ component, which consequently enlarge the perceived gaps between executives and net geners. We posit that this triad should be treated from a holistic point of view. One of the consequences of the information society is that these three components move together and are closely coupled.

Executives’ decomposition of the triangulation of technology, behavior, and norms also helps to explain the failure of top-down strategies, which inherently focus on regulating behavior either through rules and policy or technology. It is not a coincidence that most CIOs chose top-down strategies to address tensions resulting from their entry into the workplace. These strategies require minimum critical structural and political changes to the organization because the compromises to operational processes are typically minimal.

We also observe that executives approach the behavior of members of the net generation (and other behavior associated with use of the newer communications technologies) from the individual level and ignore the norms that emerge from social groups. For example, managers believe that they can train individuals to behave according to the company rules and this will solve the tensions they perceive.

We suggest that the new unit of analysis should be communities rather than individuals.  The technology component provides platforms for communities to be established quickly; these communities establish and reify norms and reinforce behaviors at a pace that has not been observed as prior generations entered the workforce. By choosing strategies that focus only on the individual level, ignoring the complexity of the communal values interwoven with the technology use and behavior, executives will find it difficult to enforce desired behavior for the long run.

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