Is there a generation gap in the social workplace?

The effect of Generation Y workers (defined as people born after 1980) on the social workplace has been debated by business executives, management thought leaders and the media over the last decade. Most of these discussions focused on the cultural and technological differences between the existing workforce and the incoming crop of new hires as in this snippet below from a 2005 article in USA today.

“Generation Y is much less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management still popular in much of today’s workforce,” says Jordan Kaplan, an associate managerial science professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn in New York. “They’ve grown up questioning their parents, and now they’re questioning their employers. They don’t know how to shut up, which is great, but that’s aggravating to the 50-year-old manager who says, ‘Do it and do it now.’ “

Moreover, Generation Y’ers are also “digital natives.” For example, they have grown up with music downloaded as MP3s and listened to on the go on their iPods, high definition movies and streamed video, and cameras that have a memory card instead of a roll of 24 exposure film. Over 90% of them are online with 75% having accounts on social networking web sites.

As this younger generation began to enter the workforce, management and organizations have been on the lookout for signs of generational conflict. As the quote above shows, the fear was that Gen Y’ers would not adapt well to the social workplace. Not only would they question their bosses, this generation also believes in sharing information in all directions and getting help from literally anybody who has the knowledge.

Information silos and rigid organizational hierarchies is something that is almost foreign to them. And being comfortable with technology, they are open to using whatever tools they have available to get their job done – no matter if it was officially sanctioned or not. A perfect example of this is using personal email accounts for business purposes. And they are all online and sharing on personal social networks – yes even at work, and if that is not allowed, on their smart phones.

No surprise that the advent of the Gen Y workforce has also been accompanied by the rise of Enterprise 2.0. By introducing familiar social networking capabilities throughout the organization companies are reshaping the way work is done for their entire workforce. This is also helping them successfully capture the interest and loyalty of the younger generation. But how do older employees and management view Enterprise 2.0? Are they falling behind because they are not as technology savvy?

Interestingly, that is not the case because the simplicity and value of social technologies creates a level playing field. Did you know, for example, that the average age of US users on Facebook is over 38? Pew Research Center published an eye-opening survey showing that older adults are embracing social networking en masse.

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And if you look at the overall numbers, a study by Pingdom has shown that social networking really isn’t dominated by the tech-savvy Generation Y. It is the age group their bosses belong to who are the majority users of online social networking sites. Of course, while this ratio may vary greatly from one social site to another – the overall data is quite telling.

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The fact is that even if these online social services are newer to the older generation, they are using them in greater numbers. So are generational conflicts a thing of the past? Not quite, and and here is a good resume of what some of the underlying causes are.

Yet, management and companies need to worry less about social technologies increasing the generational divide. They should in contrast, focus on how to adopt these social tools to accelerate collaboration, innovation and growth.

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In January 2011, JL Valente was appointed Chairman and CEO to bring additional enterprise software leadership to the blueKiwi team. His software experience spans over 25 years at an international level in the software industry. Prior to blueKiwi, JL was President and CEO of RiverMuse, an IT Operations software start-up and before that executive Chairman of CITTIO, a network & system management software start-up. He also led the Americas Operations of InfoVista, and marketing and business development at Viasoft as Senior Vice President. JL also spent 10 years with CA, where he ran marketing for the information management division. JL’s objectives at blueKiwi are simple but ambitious. Equip every business professional with an enterprise social software account. Beyond the usual growth objectives of any start-up, JL is committed to ensuring the success of blueKiwi’s customers and accelerating the adoption of its enterprise social software in the marketplace through careful listening and with intellectual honesty.