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Are we right to be concerned about Millennials and is it for the right reason?

I have been reading a lot lately about the need for organisations to adapt to the needs of the Millennials (DOB 1981-2000).  Usually these articles focus on the shock the Millenial generation is about to bring to established systems and the need for controlled destruction of an organisation’s governing norms, in order to accommodate the Millennials (think digital/social media and gaming experience, as an example).

We are reminded that their education has been different, that they are more connected than ever before and they know how to utilise and accelerate the power of their networks.  Employers are warned of the impact of digital classrooms, of gamification of learning, of flexible approaches to work, of the workplace needing to be ‘fun’, of an aversion to hierarchical organisational structures, and of their social-networking savvy.

Really?  Before we set about the destruction of all that we know to accommodate this new super generation, perhaps we should pause for a little thought.  How about an anti-problem?

Why are so many employers, in the EU and US in particular, complaining about a shortage of critical thinking and networking/communication skills?  A typical example form the accounting/finance sector, but you can replicate this sentiment across pharma, hydrocarbon, government et al.:

“77% of respondents [Pulse of the Profession Survey] said analytical/critical thinking is a key skill they’ll seek in recruitment, and 66% said that about communication skills”
(Journal of accountancy, Dec 20th, 2012)

Expanding on the problem, does the upcoming generation understand how to learn, or are organisations going to have to invest in ‘learning to learn’ programmes to underpin their need for critical thinking, networking and communication skills?  For example, the UK was ranked 6th and the US 17th in the world, based on the Pearson education rankings (with data taken from 2006-2010):

“There are direct economic consequences of high and low performing education systems, the study says, particularly in a globalised, skill-based economy” (, Nov 2012)

The output (critical thinking, networking and communication skills) will only be as good as the input and the quality (efficiency and effectiveness) of the transforming resources (teachers).  If there is a deficiency, and the data from employers across sectors suggests there is, then it will be down to organisations, especially ones that are working to become resilient, to spot talent and act as the transforming resource; effectively teaching new hires to ‘learn to learn’.

Then there is the idea that Millennials are a different breed, brought up on video games and a thirst to learn via gamification.  Is this more myth than reality?  There is evidence to support this view, such as this excerpt from Forbes:

“Renowned authors and managers like John Hagel III (author of The Power of Pull) advise business and management students to leave the university path and start playing the game World of Warcraft, because leading a guild with 25 plus members to slaughter dragons and complete missions are full management experiences that can’t be taught in the existing education system. You need to recruit and interview new guild members, debrief the team, plan, prepare and execute the missions. Former Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillet is the most prominent example of someone who attributes part of his career success (my emphasis – note, ‘only part’, but enough, apparently, to warrant leaving the HEI path) to the management skills he learned as Guild Master in the MMORPG World of Warcraft”

We are talking about the Millennials, right?  because I could argue that this experience is more the exception than the rule.  For those with children, between 12 and 32, how much different were their classrooms from yours?  Seriously, take away a smattering of technology (whiteboards, PowerPoint, digital projectors instead of OHPs), was it really that different?  Don’t confuse tech savvy, tethering to mobile technology and an intimate relationship with Facebook, with transferable knowledge and skills around social networking and communication.  Also, don’t fall into the trap of believing that Millennials regard Twitter, Wikis and blogging as second nature.

“Certain new technologies were only used by a minority of students regardless of their age: contributing to blogs (21.5 per cent) and wikis (12.1 per cent) or using a virtual world (2 per cent)”

“There was little evidence that today’s students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet.” (Science Daily, 2012)

Reflecting on my own experiences with US Business Schools and UK Universities, you would be shocked at the number of Millennials who struggle to come to terms with the practical uses of Twitter or the use of blogs and/or Wikis.  Moving on, what about persistent signals from the workplace, from employers complaining about a lack of work ethic and the problem of a generation driven by a thirst for instant gratification:

“Children between age 10 to 28 have grown up in a “trophy generation.” Everyone is a winner. Everyone get’s a prize. If we give them the illusion that they’re special and awesome, I understand that. But they’re going to go to college with a bunch of other special and awesome kids,”…

“We have college students who have been raised by expert business people and it has  been communicated to them that you can talk your way into a better place in life,”…The result?…there’s a flood of college grads who aren’t prepared to enter the workforce, or step up as leaders” (abc news, 2012)

Now, link this to the needs of resilient organisations (eg. problem-solvers, critical thinkers, networkers, people who can deal with flux and ambiguity), cross reference this with the signals of a dissatisfaction of the level of key knowledge, skills and behaviours in the work-pool, and we have a problem.

Could it be that this super generation is actually about to become Kryptonite around the necks of resilient thinking organisations?  Each generation will make its own unique mark on society, but maybe, just maybe, the Millennials are adrift from the needs of the environment.  Will they need more scaffolding than past generations, as they adjust to a complex business world? For example, taking a UK perspective, what will be the implications of Labour’s ‘Nanny-State’ influence upon society, where, one could argue, competition has been sucked out of the system (from school sports to health care provision) – nothing like being contentious in a Sunday blog?  It begs the question, one that applies to many other countries, are UK Millennials as personally resilient as they need to be to succeed in the modern world?

Don’t get me wrong, there is much to learn from the Millennial generation, such as the benefits of gamification in the workplace, but before we get carried away by thoughts of controlled destruction of what we are already doing, we just might want to make sure we are not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Update:  This blog was picked up as part of an interesting presentation by Karen Blakeman – worth a look:

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6 comments on “Are we right to be concerned about Millennials and is it for the right reason?

  1. Rick Ladd
    January 20, 2013

    Perhaps it isn’t so much the Millennials, but our perception (and expectations) of them? Maybe we expect too much. I know I did at my previous position. I was surprised to learn how difficult it was to get my younger colleagues to see the business value, and the use cases, of the social tools they were using for, well, socializing. I had hoped their needs would increase the speed with which the organization adopted newer practices and technology, but they (our Millennials) were seemingly content with separating how they communicated amongst themselves from how they communicated with the rest of us.

    I do think there is a growing need, however, for people to learn how to learn, especially in an environment requiring agility and resilience. As the speed of innovation in product and process accelerates, the need for continuous, lifelong learning – outside our “tried and true” current methods – becomes ever more important.

    • David Griffiths
      January 20, 2013

      Rick, very good point on expectation and on learning to learn. My concern is that too many Millennials (lacking data and so experience-based opinion only) are field-dependent learners (preferring to be told what to do as opposed to exploring for themselves) – something I have witnessed and u/g and p/g levels in UK HEIs and US Business Schools.

      This, in turn, can lead to the application of McGregor’s theory ‘x’ in organisations, when what we really need are dynamic organisations embedded in theory ‘y’ – part of this may, as you say, be grounded in expectation, but I would also argue that the work organisations are having to put into scaffolding Millennials is perhaps more than was expected. So many articles focus on how organisations need to adapt to Millennial needs, when, I would argue, we need to focus on how to improve their individual resilience (knowledge, skills and behaviours) in order to meet the needs of today’s organisations.

      Just to add, I totally agree with what you are saying about continuous lifelong learning – our environment is not static and nor should we be. Selling this though, especially to a generation that craves instant gratification, becomes a real challenge.

  2. john verdon
    January 20, 2013

    It seems to me that the key premise of this article is that the Millennials will have to ‘fit into’ existing organizational achitectures and modes of designing how work gets done. It may be that they and the rapidly accelerating/emerging digital environment with harken an ‘organizational awakening’.

    I have despaired about the apparent impossibility to ‘get there from here’. Trying to imagine how current and ‘next-in-line’ leader/managers will transform the paradigm of organizational architecture. I just can’t see it.

    But I attended a ‘collaboration management day’ event last year, with 300 public servants physically attending, and many others virtually attending as well as our highest bureaucrat as a speaker. The event was organized to a considerable extent via Twitter (which means on the people’s own appliances). This made me realize that once the majority of people have the tools that exist outside the organization (e.g. the next iteration of enterprise software – will have enterprise search, facebook-like personal/professional profiles (listing interests, competencies, expertise), rating systems of products/contributions, micro-blogging, and so much more. These tools will transform how people get their increasingly non-routine work done (see ). It is this type of techn and the millennials who are imbued with an improvisational approach to planning/doing that will enable them to embrace the increasingly non-routine (self-organizing) approaches to work. The won’t fit in – they will be part of an ‘Organizational Awakening’.

    • David Griffiths
      January 20, 2013

      Hi John… No, I would say you are a little off base, or I have done a poor job of making my point. The key premise of the article is to present the antithesis of current thinking on Millennials, which, in my opinion, often presents them as disruptors, or even a contagion, within existing systems that requires controlled destruction as a response – or ‘release’ and ‘reorganisation’, if you subscribe to the thinking of people like CS Holling. I am merely saying that there is another side to this argument and that we should give pause for reflection before we set about the controlled destruction of what we know. My interest is in resilience, forward facing organisations and creating conditions that work to enable a better attachment to a dynamic landscape. For that to happen we need to look at the whole, people being one aspect of a much larger systems-based picture – see our work on the K-Core model (here within this blog or ‘Scaling the fractal plain’ in the Journal of European Industrial Training – which includes organisational structure

  3. john verdon
    January 20, 2013

    I’m not sure what your point is actually – you say:

    Could it be that this super generation is actually about to become Kryptonite around the necks of resilient thinking organisations? Each generation will make its own unique mark on society, but maybe, just maybe, the Millennials are adrift from the needs of the environment. Will they need more scaffolding than past generations, as they adjust to a complex business world? For example, taking a UK perspective, what will be the implications of Labour’s ‘Nanny-State’ influence upon society, where, one could argue, competition has been sucked out of the system (from school sports to health care provision) – nothing like being contentious in a Sunday blog? It begs the question, one that applies to many other countries, are UK Millennials as personally resilient as they need to be to succeed in the modern world?

    As I read this – I read a type of implicit assumption about the organization (made stronger with the emphasis on resilience – which I understand as a capacity to withstand external forces without being damages – a type of withstanding forces of change). I do believe resilience is a positive quality but only when matched with agility and adaptability. In many ways I think the greatest challenge represented by the emerging digital environment is the need to adaptability and self-organization – the need to have at least as much internal complexity as exists in the environment. Efforts at resilience (as I understand it) may be argued to be driven by a motivation to survive the disruptive technology that has hit media, press, print, and is now beginning the disruption to traditional education (e.g. Coursera, EdX, Udacity, etc.)

    Of course, resilience doesn’t have to be understood as narrowly as I’ve just described – I do think we all (including organizations) need to be resilient (I just think that this is double edged).

    I know there has been a lot written about the millennials but a great deal is from the perspective of ‘incumbent’ managers. As an old hippie – I remember clearly how “this generation of youth’ 🙂 can’t quite fit in to the way things are done.

    I have the good fortune to know many millennials, and they are different. I’ve heard lots of oldsters speak about how they have to be ‘coddled’ etc. But when people are used to collaboration and connection – the urge for feedback is natural. But in the organization of the cube-farm (my autistic daughter calls them little jails), with restricted connectivity – they are alien. Because in the typical organization most people don’t work ‘with’ others, they work ‘beside’ others. It is the way we were taught in school (do your own work, don’t let others see what you have done, etc.) But the lessons of the ‘smart-mob’ is that connectivity (constant texting, twitter, facebook, etc) is that planning is more foreign and self-organizing as events unfold is natural. An interesting take on the changes being wrought is Raine and Wellman’s “Networked: The New Social Operating System”

    As much as you seem to think it is possible to implement KM without technology, the digital environment is generating truly disruptive means that are challenging the deep assumptions of what an organization is, and how we can design how work is done. How one can implement KM in a traditional organization (and I haven’t seen it done yet) is completely different than how it can be implement in networked organization operating with what Raine/Wellman call networked individualism as the operating system.

    If it is about people – I would imagine that a successful implementation of KM would result in every person feeling like the work they do uses all that they have to offer. And more that people would be eager about learning more, because their knowledge is valued this would provide ‘intrinsic motivation’. Very few organizations provide evidence for this. In fact the high levels of ‘non-engagement’ that Seely Brown and Hagel have written about would indicate that a real people-centric KM still doesn’t exist. That is why I don’t think we can get there from here. If we as KM researchers are serious – I don’t see any other way than the conditions which the digital environment provide and the need for a disruption to traditional management concepts.

    Maybe you have said this elsewhere, but I’ve only read two of your blog postings and perhaps have over-reacted to what I thought were the implicit assumptions about the traditional organization as remaining relatively unchanged.

    These millennials who have embraced (at minimum) improvisation over planning suggests a different level of resilience focused on agile adaptability. Perhaps I should think about resilience of purpose/identity rather than resilience of organizational form/structure – thinking about resilience in this way eliminates the contradiction for me.

So, what do you think?

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