Generation Y: When geek became chic

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Before Generation Y came along, people obsessed with computers were called nerds, but now you’re nobody without an iPod, Facebook page and a back catalogue on YouTube. Greg Pitcher looks at how HR can tap into Generation Y-ers talent for technology.

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“Working in the library at university, it wasn’t uncommon to look around and notice that, just like me, everyone was studying while listening to music on their iPods, with their mobiles in one hand, and mouse in the other, arranging the plan for the night out while writing the conclusion of an essay,” says Lauren Mills, a recent graduate from Nottingham Trent University.

If your first thought is to be surprised that students use computers rather than pen and paper in university libraries these days, prepare to be shocked.

The majority of the latest batch of graduates were born in 1987. They started secondary school in 1998, and saw the Twin Towers explode before they’d even started their GCSEs. They Googled their history homework, and organised their 18th birthdays on Facebook.

In short, they come from a very different background than many of their office peers, line managers and HR professionals. Things that seem like second nature to Generation Y are alien to many more established members of the workplace. Never is this more apparent than in the use of technology.

Young people are as likely to turn on their laptop in the morning as they are to make a cup of tea. The latest technology forms an integral part of the fabric of their lives.

Just listen to Emma Reynolds, co-founder of action group Ask Gen Y. “When I’m working, I am on e-mail all the time, which I use for personal e-mail as well,” she says. “Also while working, I log onto Facebook and communicate that way. There is a complete blur for me between work and play,” she says.

Work-life integration

Rather than work-life balance, Reynolds says she seeks “work-life integration”.

“I don’t see any issues communicating with friends during work, or multi-tasking, as long as I get the job done,” she adds.

So what does Generation Y do for HR? Aren’t they just sitting around e-mailing, texting, Facebook-ing and MSN-ing their mates about the latest cyber party when they should be getting on with some real work?

Not according to Russell Prue, IT expert at technology specialist Anderton Tiger. He believes that Generation Y is ready to solve many employers’ problems, if organisations would let them.

“Young people are incredibly creative when they are allowed to be,” he says. “They are driving this technological revolution their expertise could be invaluable to their employers.”

Prue argues that organisations should be grasping the opportunity to harness the communication and technology skills of a new breed of worker.

“Properly implemented technologies often produce cost savings, and at a time when the focus on economical and efficient methods of communication is in the minds of employers, why not use Web 2.0 tools?” he asks.

“Companies need to make sure they have a meaningful presence in the virtual world: a shop in Second Life a profile on Facebook a company promotional video on Youtube. Tools like Twitter can also be hugely effective at improving in company communication.”

There is currently a void waiting to be filled, Prue believes.

Generation Y has come to accept a dual existence with a much richer home life than work life. Young people are used to finding that the technology they rely on outside work either does not exist in the office or – worse still – is there but banned.

“They think it’s madness that the organisations they work for don’t make better use of the technology that’s part of their everyday lives,” he says.

Reynolds agrees that workplaces are woefully set up to encourage Generation Y-ers to use their best talents.

“The processes and structures in organisations generally disable the characteristics of Generation Y, rather than capitalising on them,” she laments. “Encouraging informal networks, open collaboration and open communication is a must.

“We grew up communicating, contributing, collaborating and commenting, then we arrive in the workplace and there are closed networks, closed communication channels and technology from the dark ages.”

Mills adds that young workers often have quicker ways of doing things than their more mature colleagues. “It is about the ease at which we can get things done,” she says. “For example, finding information on the internet, organising group work and communicating with peers.”

Talent take-up

So why are employers not embracing the talents of Generation Y?

Prue says the barriers include a lack of awareness of the skills, poor organisational technology provision, and a lack of understanding of how the technology could be used.

“This is a big issue for many organisations both in the public and private sector who, rather than embracing the new opportunities, are scared of them,” he says.

With the huge changes in technology that have occurred in the 20 or 30 years between most board members graduating and today, it is little wonder this fear runs deep.

“The fact that I still need to clarify what Web 2.0 is when speaking to older individuals is testament to the existence of a technology gap,” says Prue.

Web 2.0 is the term coined to describe the wave of interactive websites that sprung to life when widely-available broadband expanded the possibilities of the internet. It includes social networking tools such as Facebook,MySpace and YouTube.

“What is particularly interesting is the way that young people use these and other internet applications to communicate with each other usually in an effective and efficient manner,” says Prue.

“Generation Y-ers are also playing games on a big scale. By connecting games consoles to the internet, large multi-user games, often including several thousand players, are being played across the world every night. And when they’re not gaming or chatting, they’re shopping.”

Peter Cheese, managing partner of the Accenture Human Performance consultancy service, says organisations cannot afford to miss the chance to capture the Generation Y Zeitgeist.

On top of the advantages of utilising Generation Y’s technological nous, he says, employers need to offer cutting-edge technology to woo the new generation of recruits in the first place.

“For employers, understanding the needs and desires of this generation is a key element in the success of any recruitment and skills-development strategy – and ultimately in their ability to compete and achieve high performance.”

Cheese points out that Accenture’s research has shown that developing the right culture and leadership is critical for an employer to be successful.

“Understanding the business objectives and the way an organisation’s talent – from all generations – supports those objectives is one of the most important things HR can contribute,” he says.

Performance management

“Organisations want to be high performers. To be high performers, they need the best talent. To get the best talent, they need to be the employer of choice in a global economy.”

HR is in a position to make this happen by ensuring the needs of each employee are met, says Cheese.

However, as much as managing generations in different ways is important, so is ensuring staff of all ages work together effectively.

Cheese says: “Today’s HR organisation often has data available on employees to make educated assumptions about the way each employee, or generational group, prefers to learn, receive information and use benefits.

“Proactively customising what is provided to employees goes a long way in making each employee, and therefore each generation, as productive as possible. Technology plays a significant role in managing across generations.”

He adds that encouraging collaboration plays a significant role in improving organisation-wide communication. “Through interactions in collaborative environments, different generations can overcome generational prejudices and work together toward a common goal.”

There are many factors for HR professionals to consider, but keeping up-to-date with technology is not a luxury they can choose to do without. It is essential if they are serious about getting the most from their staff and potential employees.

Mills has some advice for HR leaders straight from the horse’s mouth.

“Make sure that HR professionals are aware of what Generation Y is capable of, and what new programmes students are using at university,” she says.

“As long as a company is up to date with technological advances then it won’t feel like stepping backwards.”

Case study: BT

Communications giant BT has embraced modern technology in an effort to nurture its best young talent and increase productivity.

From sharing staff outing photos on Facebook to giving apprentices Blackberries, the company has taken Generation Y to its heart.

Adam Oliver, head of corporate social responsibility at BT, explains how social networking has helped create vital bonds among employees:

“At BT we take on about 200 graduates each year, along with 500 apprentices, and we like to mix them together. Through things like Facebook, they get to check each other out and see what each other are into. We have more than 10,000 members of the BT Facebook group.”

Oliver adds that modern technology allows better ways of working as well as motivating young workers.

“When I gave a few of my apprentices Blackberries, they enjoyed the status, and in return they were able to reply to my e-mails quicker,” he said.

“Having a range of technology reduces stress by giving people more ways of getting things done.”