Bridging a booming generation gap in IT

If you’re old enough to remember the “generation gap” of the 1960s and 1970s, then it’s likely you’re now part of the “establishment” that manages the use of personal computing in business.

Young Baby Boomers growing up back then recall the generation gap as the distance between themselves and their parents, perceived as people unable to relate to or understand their interests, desires and passions. It was a chasm of misunderstanding and intransigence that existed between young and old.

Perhaps many of today’s generation new to the workplace feel misunderstood by the older business IT “establishment.” The one side seems obsessed with tight control of personal computing in business while a new and seemingly rebellious workforce is apt to ignore corporate mandates and customize their computing experiences.

They’re two generations from different eras. To Baby Boomers, IT was a concept introduced during their early and mid-adult years. Their computing skills were honed on the job by corporate and IT leadership, which saw technology as something that needed to be controlled and limited.

Today’s community of younger workers, exposed since childhood to personal computing and the Internet, learned the art of computing at home and at school. Many enter the workplace as savvy and experienced. They seek to explore and experiment with IT and are apt to have better computing skills than the old-time IT managers who support them.

One group is generally resistant to the increasing use of technology, while the other fully embraces the concept. They think differently.

If businesses aren’t already grappling with the IT generation gap, it’s likely they will in the near future. How might a business look to understand what a new generation of employees requires and expects in the way of IT resources? How does the IT department understand how this next generation of employees seeks to use computing in order to be productive and efficient?

These questions came to mind at an IT World Canada CIO Frankly Speaking breakfast last month, intended to examine the business value of integrated communications. A great deal of time was spent discussing the use of instant messaging and e-mail — the comfortable communication tools of a new generation.

Kevin Salvadori, CIO for Telus Corp., observed that e-mail and instant messaging had a useful place in business communications and is, in fact, a preferred choice for the vast majority of younger employees.

Curiously, however, none of the 44 CIOs and senior IT professionals in attendance — the vast majority of whom were definitely among the 40-plus crowd — said their companies sanctioned the use of instant messaging. Both instant messaging and e-mail were generally considered intrusive and counter-productive, and were discouraged.

One CIO argued that e-mail and instant messaging actually reduced employee productivity because of the constant interruptions created by these forms of communication.

Salvadori agreed that messaging for business communications required intelligent use. But he insisted that text messaging was an important application, particularly for ongoing information retrieval in a scattered organization. He went further, suggesting that today’s younger generation of business employees had figured out how to be highly productive by using various types of communication and messaging, and had learned to be effective multi-tasking employees.

“If you want to force people who are 20 to 30 (years old) to communicate in a different style, it’s going to have an impact on their productivity,” he told the assembled audience. Salvadori added it’s likely that many employees will simply use online messaging despite company mandates that might prohibit it.

“Just because you haven’t sanctioned [instant messaging], don’t think it’s not happening or being used in your organization,” he said.

Generational differences aren’t just in the kind of messaging technology young and old prefer, but also in their choice of communication devices. Eric Larsen, North American director of marketing for mobile device maker Mio Technology Ltd., during a recent interview also noted there were emerging generational preferences in the types of portable devices.

Greater multi-functionality — devices with cameras, telephones, MP3 players and personal organizers — is preferred by a younger crowd, while simpler, less complicated devices with larger view screens are the choice of those 50 and older.

The importance of generation extends beyond the workplace and is becoming a key success factor in all aspects of commerce, suggested Salvadori. Effective marketing in the future will focus on many of the demographic differences of people, particularly their ages, he said.

“The new world is about engaging people’s intention.” That’s the importance of communications for businesses, said Salvadori.

“We’re moving not from multimedia, but rather multidimensional…delivering the same message through different types of media and in different places, to different people at work and at play. I think the world is dramatically changing by generations depending on who you’re marketing to and what product you’re marketing.”

In the workplace of the future, it will be important to consider what attracts talent to your company. Many senior-level IT professionals already recognize that computing technology may be a differentiator to successfully recruit the next-generation of new employees.

It’s total nonsense to think people feel interrupted by messaging technologies, asserted one observer at the CIO breakfast.

“Trust that people can use technology to the fullest. Legislation that limits this in the workplace is missing the point.”

For business, it’s a matter of bridging the generation gap by providing the latest and greatest tools and technology for new talent, and exercising a certain patience and latitude for IT experimentation. Failing that may encourage an old Baby Boomer belief towards their employers: Don’t trust anyone over 30.

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