These workers can't imagine a world without Google or mobile phones. They grew up surrounded by PCs in their homes and classrooms; spent their high-school years using E-mail, the Web, and message boards; and were quick to adopt mobile phones, instant messaging, and, to a lesser extent, PDAs. Unlike their forebears, who have had to adapt to IM and the iPod, N-Geners regard these technologies as part of their birthright. Professionally, they embrace a new work ethic that's influenced by the speed at which information and decisions move. They also demonstrate intellectual, temporal, locational, and occupational freedom; openness to new ideas, information, and knowledge sharing; authenticity and the quest for the validity of information; and the desire for work that's both challenging and fun. The concept of this work ethic can be best understood through a set of new, nontraditional attributes. These N-Gen norms?speed, freedom, openness, authenticity, and playfulness?can also form the basis for a revitalized and innovative work culture. The work ethic that results from these norms can guide competitive advantage through the effectively recruited, engaged, and retained Net Generation employee. This isn't to suggest that an "engage them and they will build it" approach guarantees business success; indeed, balancing N-Gen norms with those of older generations will be a constant challenge. However, an IT department that can embody these five norms and leverage the innate traits of N-Geners will foster innovation. Not only will a company attract high-potential N-Gen employees, but the changes implemented will reshape the working environment, benefiting new and old employees alike. To illustrate and dramatize these norms, we'll return to fictional scenarios starring 26-year-old Sanjiv. Also, we'll link each norm to an N-Gen formative technology metaphor. A good metaphor for N-Gen speed is IM. The ability to conduct real-time chats with a database of contacts from around the world has normalized rapid communication in both virtual and real-time environments. But there can be a disconnect between the pace of IM and the much slower rate of traditional "corporate messaging," as Sanjiv discovered at his company. He had some ideas for a user-feedback mechanism in Blue Ocean's software that he believed would instantly improve client relations. He told Bonnie, his supervisor, about his ideas. She liked them and asked him to elaborate in a memo, which he E-mailed to her the next day. One day later, Bonnie thanked Sanjiv and said she would write a memo to his unit's project director, who in turn would write the VP, who in turn would raise it with the CEO at their next meeting in a week's time. That same day, Sanjiv spotted Blue Ocean's CEO entering the elevator. Why wait two weeks to have his idea shared with the CEO? If Sanjiv mentioned it now, he might get the unofficial go-ahead to begin. So he told the CEO about his ideas. Unfortunately, this kind of thing was frowned upon at Blue Ocean. An awkward silence hung in the elevator car. Planning, decision making, delegating, and transferring information according to corporate etiquette are time-intensive activities around which many companies structure their work. For a generation used to the quick flow of information, the long work processes older generations have adopted are abhorrent. Protocol is a particularly important challenge in this regard. It limits access to new ideas that may come from lower levels of the company. It also thwarts the Net Generation's expectation of direct, peer-to-peer communication through E-mail and IM. In the end, companies must strike a balance between speed and protocol. In addition to rapid communication, younger workers accelerated career advancement. Organizations that fail to demonstrate the potential for employees to rise will be less desirable to future N-Gen leaders. But again, they'll need to strike a balance?between older workers, who expect advancement to be determined primarily by seniority, and younger employees, who expect rapid advancement based on their achievements.
Freedom, another of the five N-Gen norms identified, is best exemplified in mobile phones and search engines, which represent physical and intellectual freedom, respectively. Anyone can be reached from virtually anywhere thanks to the mobile phone. Meanwhile, the ability to find and sift through a variety of opinions and the potential for serendipitous discoveries via search engines provide an entirely new method of navigating and satiating intellectual curiosity. All generations value freedom. What's different is the degree to which N-Geners have grown up with it in intellectual, locational, vocational, and temporal contexts. When work activities require employees to be in the office from 9 to 5, N-Geners' demands for flexible work schedules and environments can be problematic. As a programmer, Sanjiv could be seen as an individual contributor most of the time, so he can easily work on his own time just about anywhere. But a lot of other jobs require teamwork, client or supplier contact, shift work, or just being available and on call. Companies that can't accommodate this dichotomy between openness and structure will need other kinds of incentives to retain high-potential younger employees. Some companies give these employees BlackBerrys or Treos from day one to facilitate collaboration. Others provide direct CXO access for mentoring, as well as for reverse-mentoring?where the youngsters teach the CXO about, say, social networking by explaining their Facebook profile and how it works. Still others, like Google, insist that employees spend a certain proportion of their time?as much as 20%?dreaming about innovations that could help the business. The expectations of freedom and balance can be leveraged for competitive advantage: CIOs can use freedom as a reward by offering flexible work schedules or sabbaticals. Companies can also incorporate variety into individual work flows by varying an employee's daily tasks. In addition, companies can achieve greater efficiencies through virtual teaming. Finding the right mix of people to collaborate on projects is much easier if companies are freed from the traditional barrier of location, provided that workers are comfortable with collaborative technologies. File sharing through Napster and other services has revolutionized the distribution of music, TV shows, software, and movies, fostering an openness among N-Geners. The need for openness also is born out of years of constant feedback in their education and access to a wide variety of communication tools and contexts. Therefore, it's more important for these workers to understand and feel understood by the people who employ them?not only in their work life, but also in their social networks, hobbies, and interests. While other age groups also want this, the Net Generation expects it. Like speed, openness poses challenges to workplaces that are unaccustomed to it. For example, when Sanjiv completed a challenging project ahead of deadline, he E-mailed the project to his superior, noting where he might need additional help and asking for her thoughts. When his supervisor got around to responding several weeks later, she wrote: "I fixed some little things here and there. You need to be more careful on some details but, overall, good work." Although Sanjiv was relieved that his work was somewhat valuable, he needed details. What did she fix? Where did he need to be more careful? How was he supposed to learn when he had no specifics? He wanted to tell his supervisor he needed this kind of feedback, but he feared she was too busy.
One of the best ways of understanding this generation is through blogging, a medium that, at its best, exemplifies authenticity. Blogs are public and private; many N-Geners aren't embarrassed to post personal journal-style entries online and have them read by friends or random surfers. Likewise, authenticity serves as a diagnostic tool, an ongoing workplace thermometer that measures the strength and relevance of the employee-employer relationship. Sanjiv hates the mass E-mail messages his managers constantly circulate. He wants to understand what kind of people his employers are?what motivates them and what they do in their spare time. He also wants to know how they make decisions on hiring and promotions, and why the higher-ups are so secretive about their decision-making process. Exactly what an authentic or open workplace should look like is a subjective question. But for starters, supervisors can establish an informal comfort level where criticism and congratulations are invited and accepted. A supervisor who quickly and informally debriefs a worker about a senior meeting will accomplish more than one who waits for minutes to be drawn up and distributed a week later. All too often, older folks mistake a passion for video games as a sign of immaturity. While it's true that N-Geners love to have fun, the intricacy and challenge these games represent is also important to them, as it satisfies their desire for accomplishment?just as executing a complex work project does. The work ethic of N-Geners gives them a leg up as inherent innovators. Their need for freedom will take them to uncharted territory. Their playfulness will inject entertainment value into the workplace. And their appetite for authenticity makes them resistant to ill-considered attempts by older generations to "speak their lingo." The timing of their formative experiences is also important, as the N-Gen is the most experienced generation in the information age. Used properly, they can identify IT and information-age opportunities for organizations. Companies able to adapt to these new demands will serve as a catalyst for innovation, helping to maximize N-Geners' output and speed. From that point, effective strategies can be instituted to attract, engage, and retain the Net Generation. Since the industrial revolution, employer-employee relations have often been lopsided. But the downsizing, rightsizing, and reengineering practices of the 1980s and 1990s put an end to company loyalty. As N-Geners strive for the flexibility of lifetime employability, they realize that success lies in who and what you know. Accordingly, they rely on employee webs (E-webs): digitally enabled networks that connect to peers and friends; suppliers of information and products; larger communities; and the shareholders and competitors of employers (see chart). Whereas a traditional paper-based address book can get full, an E-mail contact list can expand infinitely. Sanjiv probably has upward of 1,000 contacts in his E-mail address book.
With the help of Web-savvy Net Geners, even traditional businesses can thrive in the brave new world of iPods and instant messaging. But it may take a dose of corporate culture shock to win over this new breed of employee. Here are some tips to get you out of baby-boomer mode.