Editorial and research director, IT World Canada

IT departments will have to strike a balance between mitigating IT risks and appeasing the next generation of IT savvy Canadian professionals who demand a “freedom to compute” from their employers.

That was among the conclusions of a recent study delving into attitudes of the younger generation towards technology usage and employer control. The first of a three-part series investigating Canada’s IT generation gap, the study was conducted by IT World Canada Inc., which publishes this Web site, plus pollster Harris/Decima Research.

It found that nearly one in five respondents felt that corporate computing and Internet restrictions are a key consideration when choosing an employer. And, 85 per cent said they agree it is important for employers to encourage employees to be proactive in using their computing skills to improve their work performance.

The survey queried 1,075 respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, some of whom were already in the workforce, and others in academia ranging from high school to post graduate.

The motivation behind the study, said Dan McLean, IT World Canada’s editorial and research director, was a suspicion that this younger demographic, having been raised on information technology, is accustomed to a different style of computing that is “non-restricted, more personalized.”

While the generation before them was exposed to computing when they started post-secondary studies or joined the workforce, the next generation perceives flexible computing as a mandatory tool to efficient work.

“The fundamental question,” said McLean, “was how would that potentially impact IT departments that are required to manage computing resources and activity, and likewise how is that going to impact business?”

Businesses need to assess the importance of delivering this flexible computing environment and view it as an asset that will eventually attract talent, said McLean. The study also found 40 per cent of respondents believe companies that allow an open computing environment are likely to be cutting edge.

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“It’s an issue of what’s the corporate philosophy around computing,” he said. “And, whether or not the philosophy of your IT department is one of enablement rather than one of restriction.”

But it does boils down to degrees of freedom in that, traditionally, the IT department’s role is to manage IT and therefore control it. Yet the younger generation will increasingly want an uninhibited computing environment, “and that flies in the face of what IT organizations are often about,” said McLean.

Moreover, the challenge is that the tools needed to holistically view and manage an IT environment are often expensive, proprietary and difficult to use. “Hence,” said McLean, “is why they just place restrictions.”

Lise Dellazizzo, senior vice-president with Harris/Decima Research, noted that interestingly enough, the IT proficiency level of the sample group was quite high. “We’re looking at an educated group of upcoming young professionals… and yet the restrictions that are being put on intellectual property and security are not getting any easier.”

It’s an issue of what’s the corporate philosophy around computing .. and, whether or not the philosophy of your IT department is one of enablement rather than one of restriction.Dan McLean>Text

It can be difficult to change corporate culture, Dellazizzo acknowledged, particularly with large organizations that must be standardized and as a result enforce rigid protocols in order to mitigate IT risk.

But for Greg Lane, chair with Mississauga, Ont.-based Canadian Information Processing Society, the issue of restricted computing faced by businesses is really one of perception. His generation once viewed the telephone as a disruptor to business, and some went as far as to bar access to it. “Now it’s a business tool,” said Lane. “So it’s every generation’s perceptions of what a business tool is and what’s an add-on to your work.”

The problem, said Lane, is the younger and older generations don’t have a common frame of reference for understanding each other’s computing needs.

But before a business overhauls its computing environment to appease and attract the next generation, there are benefits and risks to be weighed out. While restricting computing access to protect government intellectual property is a “potentially defensible” circumstance, according to Lane, in the commercial sphere the “the business impact on the negative side is you’re shutting down capability, challenge and opportunity for your people to work in a fully functional way.”

“And I’m sure twenty years from now there will be a new technology [to worry about],” said Lane.

The next stage in the study will be to present the survey findings to a focus group of chief information officers next week, whereupon the discussion will centre on how IT will handle this generational attitude shift and whether it is equipped to attract and retain talent. The message the results are conveying, said Dellazizzo, is “if you are a CIO, how are you going to deal with this?”

Thereafter, results from the survey and focus group will be amalgamated and presented to business leaders, who will be asked how they intend to effect the required change.

The final report, due out in September, will compile all results along with recommendations for future success.

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