Generation “Y”: a tool kit for the puzzled manager

Photo Stéphane Roussel / Senior Executive Vice President Human Ressources, Vivendi / April 6th, 2011

When the French poet Louis Aragon wrote the line "the weight of the future pushes each present moment back to but a memory", its application to either the internet or management would never have entered his mind. And yet, the words of the great poet resonate for the contemporary challenge of information technology in enterprise.

The internet has spawned at least two major revolutions at the heart of the “corporate” world in the space of the last 20 years. In one, new platforms granting access to limitless reservoirs of information have allowed individuals to instantly connect and collaborate. In the other, the modalities of interaction have continued to multiply and evolve. How then will the heart that beats at the core of modern enterprise organize, convince, and integrate the next wave of talent for whom these technologies have become an extension of their own personal lives? How will management adapt in the era of Twitter and Facebook?

The IT revolution has changed our relationship to time and space and the implications for management are clear. Contemporary society has grown accustomed to near constant innovation and we find ourselves surrounded by products and services that arrive in advance of any visibly manifested demand. Previously, the desire arrived far in advance of any real consummation. The gap between the dream of a trip to the moon and the first steps on its surface was considerable. To those living through the event, a development time of multiple years seemed a mere heartbeat but in today’s world, it would be an eternity. Contemporary history is made before it begins. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the iPad all appeared before most people even realized they wanted them. The time that elapses between a flash of inspiration and its realization is no longer what it was.

Nothing about the new compressed timeline could raise the eyebrows of any of those dubbed generation “Y”, a broad term used to describe those born between 1979 and 1994. Innovations bubble to the surface in rapid succession and are adopted with little hesitation. They create greater fluidity in a collaborative working style built on an ingrained belief in the power of social networks. The resulting cultural shift has expanded outwards and is no longer limited to a single specified generation. The technological revolution has become a cultural one and at the level of enterprise, three possible reactions to the reality have become clear.

Into the first camp can be placed the “holdouts”, they are allergic or simply overwhelmed, and are unable, or refuse, to become a part of the new reality. They avoid new technologies when possible, whether by choice or because their workplace is not equipped with the latest advances. In their personal lives, even booking tickets online is a bridge too far… Not far off are those in the camp composed of the “prudent”, who along with the “curious” and the “adaptable”, integrate networks into their lives for practical reasons or simply to “survive”. An example would be grandparents making use of instant messaging as a way to stay in touch with grandchildren. Finally, for generation “Y”, whether they are “newcomers” or “addicts”, staying “connected” is as natural as breathing, they are completely immersed in the new reality and have integrated it into every aspect of their lives.

The new terrain is rich in opportunities but pitfalls lurk just below the surface.

Members of generation “Y” possess a somewhat naive belief in their ability to control their environment through their mastery of interactive technologies. As access to vast stores of knowledge and the power of social networks is made ever easier and more rapid the intoxication that results can create an illusion of omnipotence. In reality, a sort of Pandora’s inbox has been opened in which, as more information becomes available, it arrives in ever more fragmented form. Losing one’s bearings in a sea of information is a very real danger. Moreover, it has been remarked that the technological know-how of generation “Y” is not always transferrable to the workplace and by no means guarantees professional success.

In fact, the traditional qualities required of a leader have remained more or less constant: ability to build strategic partnerships, capacity for risk assessment, possession of managerial qualities. An aptitude for technology has become a more marketable asset for those wishing to fulfill a management role but only to a point, and far from a decisive one. To accede to the reins of power, generation “Y” will need to develop a capacity to sort the necessary from the superfluous; the “urgent” from the merely important. They must adopt behaviors that generate value as opposed to those that encourage them to be passive observers content to sit back and let technology happen to them rather than the other way around. Of paramount importance will be the ability to keep a cool head in the midst of the incessant whirlwind composed of the never-ending “new”.

Another challenge is represented by the way in which technological advances impose increasingly compressed timeframes on the internal capacities of enterprise. Generation “Y” is almost, by definition, oblivious to the idea of a fixed time or space: information is always floating in the ether and can arrive from anywhere while lines between personal and professional are blurred and are constantly crossed. They possess the ability, as well as the desire, to engage in multiple activities at any given moment. E-mail presents a clear illustration of the dynamic under which we are constrained to be ever more “instantaneous” in our professional communication under the guiding principal that if I receive information quickly and rapidly, the tacit expectation is that I respond instantly in kind. In terms of simple correspondence, the benefits of the arrangement are clear, when presented with complex situations rather less so. “Compressed” time can lead to errors, lost efficiency, and sloppy thinking. Text-messaging further illustrates the point: does not the time “gained” rapidly evaporate in the face of the necessity to respond to the incessant flux of incoming messages? At Vivendi we have implemented a policy of mail-less Fridays in order to liberate the potential for uninterrupted thought.

Those standing outside generation “Y” observe the cult of the immediate with bemusement. They continue to organize themselves along “traditional” lines: I am flooded with new information but what are my priorities? What needs to be delegated, deferred, or disposed of? The French educational system continues to favor the “one thing at a time” approach to problem solving where a period of analysis is clearly separated from a subsequent process of synthesis. The rigidity of this mental framework is straining under the weight of modern tools that operate on the principle of “everything, right now!” The most ardent technophobes will risk obsolescence and their e-skepticism could rather quickly become a handicap. On the other hand, those who are capable of viewing recent developments from a certain distance, remaining coolheaded in the face of constant acceleration, have become more and more precious. They are essential to the ability of an enterprise to continue to think in terms of benefits over the long term.

The conception of time that presides over generation “Y” is as disruptive to long-term planning as it is to daily routines. We find that the majority struggle to create a vision of their own lives over the next five years, and likewise if they try to imagine where they will be professionally in two. Is it because of a lack of imagination? No. Rather, it is the result of living in a context of permanent transformation and change where the notions of planning and ambition are being redefined continuously. For this generation there is less emphasis placed on “climbing” and more on finding ones place at the heart of sustainable professional and personal networks that are supportive and contribute to the efficient realization of goals.

The rupture introduced to interpersonal relationships through technological change is hard to ignore. Workstation screens are constantly emitting the blips and bells signaling the arrival of instant messages in both voice and written form, professional and personal. Evenings at home might include placing the finishing touches on an important presentation. Sending text-messages to friends while at work is so common as to have become trivial. Time and place no longer dictate behavior and the lines between family, friends, and work have blurred. The playing field has shifted. Workplace relations take on added significance as they will quite possibly overlap with personal lives and extend far beyond the four walls of the office. The dynamic flows in the opposite direction as well and generation “Y” often struggles to comprehend how the working environment requires a perspective that may differ from that employed over social networks. Facebook users may find that the demands of management are of a different order than what is required of them to maintain regular updates of a homepage.

Effective management requires the creation of strategic partnerships, and a determination of how to most effectively harness the available talent to best further the interests of a given enterprise. Moreover, it would be misleading to believe that communication technologies might one day create a replacement for face-to-face meetings and conferences. At such occasions, it is not so much what is said at the table as what is left unsaid that is important. Non-verbal communication and post meeting conversations play an essential role in discussions. Virtual technology serves only to shine light on the patently obvious laws of the real world.

The very definition of “career goals” has been upset by the role of uncertainty in the lives of more recent arrivals on the job market and their primary aim is to evolve within the best technological and cultural environment possible. In order to attract the best talent, firms are relying on the appeal of cutting-edge technology and the promise of a working environment based on open management and a high degree of autonomy. Unwilling to lead lives that revolve around the company, the behavior of generation “Y” bears more resemblance to that of a well-informed consumer and demands individualized treatment in all aspects of working life including hours, compensation and professional development. They expect rapid recognition and are eager to demonstrate their talent, lacking the patience required to endure a slow and steady rise by way of hypothetical promotions.

Intimately familiar with the latest digital tools generation “Y” displays a marked preference for collaboration by way of networks over the more traditional command-and-control approach to management which demands fulfillment of a specific role. As employees, members of this generation might belong to multiple teams and demonstrate a capacity for a horizontal approach to problem solving that might take in many different projects simultaneously. Their flexibility in the face of organizational changes or shifts in the nature of partnerships is the result of qualities such as speed, audacity, and heightened sensitivity to the way the strategic winds are blowing. The French education system has been praised for its ability to turn out polished academics but has been unable to reorient its system of rewards to encourage the aforementioned qualities. In this regard, the American and British approaches have been far more successful.

Speed is acquired when we privilege the spirit of mash-ups and agility. Generation “Y” is good at seizing new trends and creating tools to exploit new potential. In a sanitized environment that lacks any edges, audacity is a highly desirable quality to have. In professional life, where long tenures with a small number of employers have become a distant memory, paradoxically, the only real risk today is an unwillingness to take risks. The leveling effect of the tools of modern communication is also affecting the personalities that flourish in a more horizontal world. The creative genius struggles to survive the spirit of consensual collaboration required to thrive under the new code of conduct. This creates a strange paradox for generation “Y” : a strong demand for autonomy but a craving for the safety of the pack. A core strategic philosophy becomes the moral compass that unites the twin desire for the safety of reliable shores and the spirit of exploration. As the world becomes less predictable, the need for tactical flexibility is clearly evident but the overriding concern should be an ability to align oneself with a guiding strategic vision.

Has the internet created a dynamic under which it is inevitable that management, as it has been understood in the post-war era, be consigned to the dustbin of history? Has the enthusiasm for a more “participatory” approach fundamentally altered the art of leading large organizations? I favor a modest approach. The “eternal” qualities on which successful management is based require leaders to: listen, unite, convince, decide … to which may be added several others, as a reflection of society’s transformations, which include a willingness to: encourage the creation of internal and external networks; accelerate innovation; and, reward risk takers. Above all, management must be sensitive to the qualities that make each team member unique.

Generation “Y” rejects command-and-control management as strongly as it desires a solid platform from which to build. Younger workers are more willing than ever to challenge established hierarchies, and the flattening of organizational structures means that rigid or coercive measures will not be tolerated by employees who nevertheless demand some form of management that is both robust and authoritative. They demand leaders who, while remaining attentive yet decisive, are capable of uniting dual aspirations for modernity as well as a degree of stability.

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  • Generation “Y”: a tool kit for the puzzled manageron April 6th, 2011
  • Jérémy Sintes

    @tx for the article. Indeed, for the traditional company, this new kind of manager will not be accepted as easily :

  • Miguel

    @JasonFried, the founder of 37Signals, a well known Chicago based software company wrote an interesting post about management, quoted : “Adding a dedicated manager and creating a hierarchy is not the only way to create structure” :

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  • Louis D.

    What’s quite amusing is that it would appear most of the respondents below are Boomers or Xers; no comments, just the link. Perhaps these receding generations ought to consider that most of the obstacles to managing Y can be overcome by dialogue. My guess is that with helicopter and self-indulgent parents Y arrives in the work-place with a whole assortment of emotional baggage-and moreover-since the work relationship in the West is at least the 3rd level of intimacy-much of that baggage is displaced into the work system. Fascinating. 

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