Technology

Supervising Net Gen


Forget top-down management. To harness the potential of young employees, you'll need to collaborate and give them lots of feedback

Editor's note: This is the sixth in an eight-part series (BusinessWeek.com, 11/30/08) of Viewpoints by author Don Tapscott, who draws on the $4 million research project that inspired his new book, Grown Up Digital, to explain how digital technology has affected the children of the baby boomers, a group he calls the Net Generation.

Earlier this year, I sat with Best Buy (BBY) CEO Brad Anderson in a typical meeting with a roomful of managers. He did something that fellow CEOs might find unusual. He let a 23-year-old employee, Adam Mulder, speak passionately and at some length about changes he thought would improve sales of media products for the consumer electronics retailer. Throughout Mulder's speech, Anderson took notes and asked thoughtful questions.

It was a small but telling example of how you have to manage young employees these days. Forget the old system of top-down supervising. If you want to hire and keep young people, you have to collaborate with them. What's more, it's worth it, because these kids have the quick, collaborative reflexes to help companies stay in business, as Best Buy has done.

"The Net Geners we hire have enormous knowledge, unprecedented information, and facility with tools that in some areas is superior to their seniors," Anderson explains. "They've got a difference that produces unique insights. The future of this enterprise is dependent much more on him than on me."

Youth Culture Comes to Work

Most of Best Buy's retail employees are between ages 16 and 24. These kinds of employees have changed the job of management for Anderson. It's not about supervising employees anymore. It's about creating a context that lets young people like Adam Mulder be successful. Besides, to Brad Anderson there is another practical reason to listen: "If I were to shut him down, he'd tell someone and soon everyone would know that I don't listen," Anderson says. "He can shut me down as the CEO. Having power means something very different than it used to."

Anderson is listening carefully to these young people, and more CEOs should follow his example. It's because the culture of youth, the young people who've grown up digital, may well become the new culture of work and the high-performance organization.

Look at what's happened to work. It's become more cognitively complex, more team-based and collaborative, more dependent on social skills, more time-pressured, more reliant on technological competence, and more mobile. It's less dependent on geography. A growing number of firms are decentralizing their decision-making. Instead, people are communicating in a peer-to-peer fashion, rather than following old-fashioned lines of authority. They're embracing new technologies that give employees the power to communicate easily and openly with people inside and outside the firm. In doing so, they are creating a new corporate meritocracy. It's sweeping away the old hierarchical structures and connecting teams of individuals to a wealth of external networks.

Interactive Employee Relationships

The Net Generation, young people in their 20s who have grown up digital, is perfectly positioned for this kind of work. Having grown up digital, they expect to collaborate, wherever they are. They insist on speed. They're innovative by nature. They think work—the work itself—should be fun and challenging.

Managing them successfully is, of course, a challenge. For starters, managers will have to rethink the traditional pillars of HR. As youth researcher and author Robert Barnard and I have concluded, the old model of employee development—recruit, train, supervise, and retain—is outdated. This is, after all, a generation that has grown with a digital technology that is, at its very core, interactive. These Net Geners expect a conversation, not a one-way lecture. So now employers have to think about a reciprocal relationship with their employees. This can mean customizing jobs, as Deloitte is doing. "We believe that it is a new strategy for the workforce of the 21st century, and the workforce of the 21st century is different than the workforce in the last century," Deloitte CEO Jim Quigley told me.

Yet too many companies make no effort to learn from the Net Geners. Too often the young people go to work and hit a wall of corporate procedure and a deeply entrenched hierarchy that rewards those who command large numbers of followers. The widespread banning of Facebook at work is a classic example of misguided supervision. The Net Gen wants to take a digital break; the boomer employers shut them down. Get ready for the generational clash at work as a generational firewall builds up frustration.

A Quicker Performance Review

To avoid this clash, the new credo for managing Net Geners should go like this: initiate, engage, collaborate, and evolve. What does this mean? Take a look at a new service called Rypple that is designed to replace the old-fashioned performance review. Instead of waiting an entire year to find out what the managers think of them, employees can send out a quick (50 words or less) question to people they trust—a manager, a co-worker sitting in the meeting, even a client or a supplier. The questions are supposed to be pointed: What can I improve? What did you like? The recipients can answer quickly and anonymously, and the employee can track performance over time. It's just-in-time performance improvement—just the kind of regular feedback young people need to improve.

"We recognized, especially for the Net Gen, that work is learning, and learning is work," says David Stein, Rypple's co-founder. "They want useful feedback, frequently. However, current systems for feedback and development are exactly the opposite—infrequent, top-down, and vague—and they don't have to be."

Employers have two options. They can absorb the Net Gen way of doing things in a quick collaborative way, as Best Buy and Rypple's clients are doing. Or they can stick to their old hierarchies, and reinforce the generational barrier that separates the managers from the newly hired minions. But if they do, they will forfeit the chance to learn from the Net Gen—to absorb both their mindset and their tools of collaboration.

I think the winners will be those companies that choose the Net Generation culture. Just watch: It will be the new culture of work.

Don Tapscott is the chairman of nGenera Insight and has written 12 books on the impact of the Internet on society. He is also an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. His 1996 book, Growing Up Digital, defined the Net Generation and the sequel, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World, was just released.


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