The flip side of ‘Freedom to Compute’

There has to be at least one person under the age of 25 who hates Facebook.

Nagging thoughts such as these came to me late last week, as I was finishing up publication of a five-part series I wrote on Freedom to Compute: The Empowerment of Generation Y. This was a report on a survey conducted by Toronto-based Harris-Decima in partnership with IT World Canada. I aimed the five-part series at CIO Canada’s readers, but the same information holds relevance for IT managers, who are more likely to be dealing with these younger coworkers directly.

The research, which involved a national survey of those between the ages of 18 and 29 about their attitudes towards IT, confirmed a lot of the accepted wisdom we have about the next generation of enterprise employees. In some cases it amplified it. Nearly half of those surveyed said they regularly bypass IT usage policies. One in five said they would accept a lower salary in exchange for greater IT freedom. A majority of them see themselves as highly proficient with computers. If you need a character type to visualize Generation Y, just think of Justin Long in Apple’s Mac vs. PC commercials and you’ll get the idea.

Besides talking to the people at Harris-Decima who wrote the report, I also bounced the findings off Matt Eliot, a 25-year-old blogger who runs, and his insights were terrific. Now that I read the series over again, though, I start to wonder if we’ve all over-generalized a little. I personally know a few Gen Yers who aren’t particularly IT savvy, who don’t own so much as a notebook and who are strait-laced about separating their office hours and their private lives. Maybe they’re exceptions to the rule, but even if that’s so can we afford to dismiss them?

I think there is a tendency – and I’ll admit I may have fallen victim to it – to idolize the computer-loving, work-at-all-hours Gen Yers. They seem like potential star employees (providing they don’t expose the company to massive data loss). After all, who wants to deal with users who doesn’t understand basic software programs and shy away from Web-based communication? Actually, I can think of some IT professionals who would find such individuals much more easy to manage, both in terms of policy enforcement and expectations of technology (read: low).

Much in the way we try to encourage bookworms to take up sports, and get the jocks singing and dancing in high school musicals, wouldn’t employers prefer a Gen Y that was a little more well-rounded in their approach to work and IT? There could be young employees who tap into social networking services, but who also keep a log of what they’re doing for potential audit purposes. There are those who use mobile computing devices, but who also demonstrate leadership in backing up data and ensuring antivirus software is updated. Imagine a Gen Yer who not only thinks they’re computer-proficient but can identify areas about technology they still need to develop.

The other danger is that by ignoring exceptions to the Gen Y rules we may miss really critical development opportunities. Such workers may have other skills – deeper expertise in their subject matter, an admirable work ethic or strong ability to manage face-to-face customer encounters – that could be as useful as knowing what to do with Twitter. Yes, give Generation Y freedom to compute. But let’s not be so captive to that idea that we don’t think it through.

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