Companies & Industries

Let Gen Y Teach You Tech


Once derided as sandboxes for slackers, messaging and social networking sites are the new organizing centers, town halls, and news sources, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Posted on Winning the Talent War: June 29, 2009 11:11 AM

You say you want a revolution? Better set up a Twitter or YouTube account. Once derided as sandboxes for Gen Y slackers, messaging and social networking sites are the new soapboxes, organizing centers, town halls and, as the recent events in Iran have shown, an increasingly powerful news source.

Much has been made of the youth engine driving Iran's demonstrations—half of the country's 71 million people are under the age of 25 and nearly two-thirds are under 30. "Just look at a single photo of a rally on www.youtube.com/citzentube to see hundreds of hands raised in the air and holding a cell-phone camera to get a sense of how tech-savvy this generation is," says Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube (now owned by Google). "Now the activism that young people have always engaged in is being reflected in mass platforms for mass distribution. But it's not just about documenting an event," he adds. "It opens a conversation about what's taking place." Grove's expansive and enthusiastic take on YouTube is at the heart of Google's mission. This company has always stood for the democratization of information and connection.

Until recently, it was a conversation mostly confined to the raised-on-the-Net younger generation and a few older outliers. Now, however, it is rapidly expanding across all ages and demographics. And, with collaboration a driving force in the 21st century workplace, new research by the Center for Work-Life Policy finds that smart companies are eagerly figuring out how to get employees of all ages to participate. Their secret weapon: Generation Y workers.

Think of it as spreading the wealth. According to CWLP data, Gen Y (the 70 million-strong demographic dynamo born between 1979 and 1994) is a connected, tech-savvy tribe, comfortable with state-of-the-art communication technology; 64% regularly participate on social networking sites compared with only 20% of their Baby Boomer colleagues. In fact, Boomers are looking to learn from the Ys: 88% see the Ys as tech-savvy and 40% say they have already asked their younger co-workers to teach them about iTunes, text-messaging and social networks.

Time Warner formalized this information exchange with an unusual version of a mentoring program in which the traditional roles of older mentor and younger mentee are reversed. The Digital Reverse Mentoring program matches college students from outside the company with senior executives for one-on-one meetings about Web 2.0 applications and the many emerging—and mutating—technologies changing the media industry.

Time Warner recruited Gen Y mentors from college students who were not only passionate consumers of digital technologies but also creators of it—writing blogs, posting videos on YouTube and making imaginative use of new media—not only to better understand how new technologies are impacting Time Warner but also to obtain fresh ideas on optimizing the company's online presence. "Executives felt that there was so much knowledge to be gained from these college students," says Vera Vitels, vice president of global people development. "They were impressed with the types of conversations they had and very satisfied with the overall experience." So satisfied, in fact, that the program has been extended from four pilot cities to larger groups of executives throughout the company.

Consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton has long been challenged to ensure that its far-flung workforce remains embedded in the company's culture. In 2008, the tech department created hello.bah.com, an internal database with social networking capabilities that enables employees to search for specific colleagues or people who share similar interests, post blogs and participate in wikis and other community building applications. Within 14 months after this grassroots application launched, 36% of Booz Allen's workforce had signed up. Ys who reach out to Boomers on the site help them utilize it more effectively; conversely, Boomers share their know-how in other areas with their junior colleagues.

Quick, post that on YouTube.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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