Tech & Work

Sanity check: Will technology empower Gen Y to wipe away our institutions?

The first digitally-native generation is moving into the workforce and has no patience for out-dated institutions. With the help of technologies they have grown up using, they could revolutionize or eliminate many time-honored institutions -- including IT departments.

The first digitally-native generation is moving into the workforce and has no patience for out-dated organizational structures. With the help of technologies they have grown up using, they could revolutionize or eliminate many time-honored institutions — including IT departments.

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Generational differences — much of them fueled by advances in technology and communications — are going to have sweeping effects on the organization and purpose of many today's incumbent institutions as Baby Boomers are displaced by Generation Y in the workforce.

In his March 21, 2008 article War of the Worlds: The Human Side of Moore's Law, Robert Cringley wrote,

"We've reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal."

While Cringley focuses his article on the impact that this change will have on the educational system, another one of the institutions that will come under attack in this transition is the traditional IT department.

Employees from Generation Y (those born between 1979 and 1995 and sometimes referred to as "The Millennials") have grown up with computers and cell phones and are often so familiar with technology that they are unconscious of it. Technology is just part of life, part of business, part of everything.

As a result, when they join the workforce and start encountering IT departments, there's the potential for a knee-jerk reaction when IT becomes a barrier to getting things done for a variety of well-meaning reasons, such as security, compliance, standardization, content filtering to improve productivity, and "that's just the way we do it."

However, the IT departments that are unnecessarily rigid and focused more on consolidating their own power than empowering employees will find themselves the target of budget cuts and proposals to decentralize IT or just merge it with business operations. That could especially be the case when Gen Y starts moving into management.

That said, IT also can't ignore its responsibilities to the business — no matter how mundane or challenging — just to accommodate the free-wheeling technical savvy of a new generation of workers. IT and Gen Y will need to forge some common ground.

I think TechRepublic member Palmetto summed up the skepticism that a lot of IT pros currently feel about the Generation Y employees who are entering the workforce when he recently wrote:

"'Next generation of users will be digital savvy.' I hope so. I hope they'll understand applications besides Web-based social 'tools', peer-to-peer sharing of entertainment files, and the cheat codes for the latest games. There's more to understanding how business applications work and interact than knowing how to use the consumer apps they're growing up with."

Let's take a quick look at some of the changes that will come with this generational transition, and a few of the things that IT will need to do to adapt.

What's going to change

  • Many users will bring their own equipment (primarily laptops and smartphones)
  • Users will often select their own apps and tools
  • More workers will be mobile and will telecommute at least part-time
  • IT won't have as much centralized control of resources (unless you're in a high-security environment)
  • Data security, privacy, and confidentiality will be even more complex to manage

What can IT do

  • Think like shepherds rather than generals
  • Make user education a top priority and use a peer-to-peer rather than paternal delivery
  • Start looking at technologies like application virtualization for locking down your most important apps and data, no matter where they're accessed from
  • Develop specific policies for telework in collaboration with HR and senior management

Additional reading:

About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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