In recent weeks there has been an increased debate about and focus on ‘Millennials’ and Enterprise2.0, most recently articulated in Dennis Howlett’s ‘Irregular Enterprise’ Blog on ZDNet. While I share many frustrations with those skeptical of the claims being made (particularly, that only young people seamlessly use Web2.0 tools and applications in everyday life and that anyone over the age of 24 is past it and just doesn’t get it) much of the opposition is equally impressionistic and thus misses important development with huge implications for the future of the Enterprise.
The opposition to the exaggerated Millennial impact upon the Enterprise usually consists of a rejection of the claims about how younger generations coming into the workplace will fundamentally challenge and transform existing practices. They counterpose older generational increasing use of communication and social networking technologies (using themselves as their case study) arguing that they are as adept at collaborative interaction as the ‘digital kids’.
This approach is not only unhelpful, it is dangerously wrong. Why dangerous? Because it accepts a number underlying prejudices that if unchecked will inhibit the potential benefits of both the technologies and the behavioural changes many describe but fail to analyse correctly.
There are two myths that need countering within this debate. The first is the myth that young people today are naturally good with technology and are thus ‘digital whizzkids’. The second is that adult technology adoption is as good as, if not better than the ‘yoof’. Both revolve around a loss of adult authority which, I hope to demonstrate when applied in the enterprise setting, elides the critical distinction between participation and conscious collaboration.
If we are to realise the benefits of the technology and the behavioural changes these have enabled, then these issues need to be analysed in much greater depth – something which is sorely lacking in the Enterprise2.0 debate.
Much of what follows draws upon research conducted some years ago by Professor Frank Furedi and myself (a draft pdf can be downloaded here).
The real danger of this over simplified discussion is that the real insights into the behaviour of digital kids is lost in a haze of hyped imprecision
The myth of digital whizzkids
The myth of the digital whizzkid needs to be challenged for four reasons:
- First, because it mistakenly assumes that young people effortlessly adopt digital technology into their lives because they are into the technology;
- Secondly, because the myth of digitally savvy children is actually an expression of adult confusion about how to conduct their relations with children, which has little to do with children’s relationship to the new media;
- Third, because it flatters children instead of critically engaging them in a quest to engage more fully with the technology itself; to understand the science and mathematics behind the magic of the digital world;
- Fourth, because by reducing adults to the level of children in need of expert guidance, it infantilises serious questions regarding collaboration in the workplace. This confuses the self-centered ethos of social networking as practised by younger generations and now increasingly being adopted by adults, with collaboration with serious implications for social software adoption, usage and outcome for the Enterprise.
Before addressing the very serious Enterprise 2.0 side of this discussion it is necessary to go into some detail about younger people and communications technology.
Contemporary childhood and digital technology
If you want to understand how and why children adopt digital technologies into their lives, then understand how their experience of childhood has changed. In recent decades, childhood has been fundamentally reorganised around risk. Childhood has become perceived as an exceedingly dangerous experience – their health, outdoor activity, indoor activity, online activity, family life, peer relations, encounters with adults – are now represented as risky. Children are now frequently defined as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’.
The creation of the ‘indoor child’ whose leisure activities, increasingly dominated by new media, have been transferred to the ‘safety’ of the domestic sphere is one symptom of this risk consciousness. When children are allowed to venture outdoors, to play with friends or play sports, adults now supervise these activities. This decline of ‘street culture’ and the rise of ‘bedroom culture’ have a number of fundamental consequences:
- First, children’s lives have increasingly become dominated by the presence of adults;
- Second, digital technology is used by children to overcome their experience of isolation;
- Third, peer communications result in a distinct peer culture that is digitally mediated and which seeks to gain a measure of independence through evading adult monitoring.
Thus, the changing character of childhood – particularly the shift from outdoor to indoor – has created a steady demand for tools and applications that help children manage their lives. This is the impetus behind their adoption and rapid internalisation of the technology. It is driven by their social needs, by their relationship to popular culture and their peers, not a love of technology. It also results in a number of important dynamics and conflicts with parents that shape this experience on both sides.
While parents regard new technology as an educational tool, children regard it as a medium of self-expression, acknowledgement, entertainment and connectivity; parents approach to the new media is underwritten by the imperative of risk minimisation while children adopt and use it in part to gain a measure of freedom from adult supervision. Customisation, demarcation and self-expression are the requirements of a generation that regards self-expression as itself a form of communication. Above all else, they passionately seek to protect their interaction space from the monitoring of adults.
As the adult world has closed down physical space, children have successfully created space for themselves in the virtual world.
From this perspective, media technology is not something to be shared but is something to be customized, personalized and consumed privately out of the sight of adults. Indeed, this intergenerational dynamic is one of the key drivers of technology adoption by young people and which has resulted in the social networking behaviours and phenomena that now dominate society.
Enter the ‘digital whiz kid’
Many adults find it difficult to comprehend children’s digital activities. As a result, adults often wrongly attribute this to the ‘natural’ ability to manipulate new technology. Adult insecurities regarding the emerging peer culture are refracted through anxieties about their own technological incompetence. The belief that children are naturally creative users of digital technology is a myth fuelled by adult insecurities and expresses more about how adults have become confused about how to conduct their relations with children than anything to do with children and their relationship to the new media technologies.
For some time now, parents, teachers, and other adults involved with children have gone out of their way to cross the generational divide and become young people’s friends rather than their mentors. Uncertainties about adulthood are invariably linked to changing ideas about childhood. In a world where maturity is disparaged as being ‘past it’, and the older generation is seen as having no special claim to wisdom, parents can feel awkward about exercising authority.
These cultural trends have a profound influence in the ways that parents make sense of their children’s relationship with the new media. When it comes to new media technology, an intense sense of parental incompetence co-exists with the belief that children are naturally highly skilled computer-savvy whiz kids. Those that argue that adults use of these technologies is as good as or even better than younger people’s have a point, but it is wrong to claim therefore that there is no difference in the relationship between these generations and the technology.
Why? Because there are a variety of good reasons why this relationship is qualitatively different and why the erosion of adult confidence has acquired a particularly intense manifestation in relation to the new media:
- Unlike the younger generations that have grown up with these technologies, many adults have a limited and episodic relationship to them. Alan Kay’s rejoinder that anything invented after you are born is technology is apposite here;
- Young people value and acquire computer expertise in order to achieve practical objectives. Children experience the media as an integral part of youth culture;
- The internalisation of these technologies means that younger people no longer make a distinction between the on and offline worlds, it is a seamless continuum;
- Adults tend to have a more distant and functional relationship to it;
- Many aspects of the new media – gaming, texting, instant messaging, chatting etc. – are seen as part of young people’s world. This is an alien territory where adults find it even more difficult than in other areas of their lives to exercise their authority.
Thus, the presentation of children as media savvy and naturally gifted and ahead of their parents is merely another form that the idealisation of childhood assumes in Western society.
Many studies indicate that children do not possess natural talents and abilities, which are somehow lost as they make the transition to adulthood. The tendency to celebrate the natural aptitude of children distracts from understanding why their technical ability can sometime exceed those of adults. It is not natural ability but social isolation and a lack of autonomous space that prompts participation in the wider youth consumer culture and encourages engagement and experimentation with different forms of new media. Since it is one of the key markers of status in peer-to-peer relations, children have a strong incentive to familiarise themselves with the new media.
It is the imperative of youth consumer culture rather than a natural disposition to interact with new technology that explains why children often appear to be so ahead of adults.
It is the assimilation of this culture by the younger generations that gives them the technological edge over their elders. In so far as children’s technical competence exceeds their elder’s it reflects their proximity to and involvement in contemporary youth consumer culture. Nothing more nor less.
If Facebook were a nation, as the ‘social media gurus’ gleefully point out, it would be the most unproductive nation in the history of civilisation
Thus, the relationship between young people and technology is far more complex than the simple notion of ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Digital Immigrants’ suggests. There is nothing natural or preordained about this relationship. It is a complex relationship, which stems from contemporary society and the lived experience of young people.
Infantilising the Enterprise?
So what does this mean for Enterprise2.0? In the first place, the defence of older generations in the workplace by arguing that they are as adept as younger people in technology use and collaborative practice is an expression of the undermining of adult confidence and not knowing how to deal with young people. It adds to the mystified character of the apparent generational and behavioural changes we see today, suggesting that what we experience is unprecedented with enormous implications for the future.
The Millennial issue in the workplace has become symptomatic of the uncertainty of the ‘information age’ which exaggerates the novelty of the present at the expense of the past. This generational shift is regarded as unprecedented and a unique feature of our times. The workplace (and indeed, the world) is now divided into two periods: the past where everything remained the same with little change and the current moment with its constant change where change and disruption are incessant.
This rhetoric of unprecedented change is precisely that, rhetoric. What about the generational shift that occurred in the 1960s? The rise of the teenager in the post-War period was indeed unprecedented and had a huge impact on Western society. But did this result in the end of the enterprise as we know it? No, the exact opposite. It helped to forge the enterprise as we know it.
This exaggerated sense of change is problematic for three reasons:
- First, it presents young people as the nexus of the reorganisation of the enterprise whereas in reality, young people need to be trained and mentored to fulfil their potential within the enterprise. Dressing this up as an Enterprise2.0 ‘insight’ is not only inaccurate (it is after just another form the crisis of adult authority assumes) it robs Enterprise2.0 of any business credibility;
- Second, it infantilises collaboration. The reduction of collaboration – the conscious act of working or labouring together for a common outcome – to the level of the self-centred egotistical behaviours central to youth participatory culture, is to rob it of its substance. This elevates form over content by over-estimating the behaviours of young people while under-estimating the real collaborative potential inherent in these behaviours (discussed below);
- Third, it stresses the trivial rather than the substantial: the playful character of younger people’s media activities is just that, play. While there are elements of this that can be usefully adapted to online work environments, workflows and business processes are designed for specific outcomes not for fun. If Facebook were a nation, as the social media gurus gleefully point out, it would be the most unproductive nation in the history of civilisation!
By stressing what is so unprecedented about this behaviour, the advocates of the Millennial impact on Enterprise2.0 are shooting themselves in the foot. Instead of stressing what is disruptive and unprecedented we need to focus upon the continuities with the past. Continuous improvement rather than disruptive uncertainty will more readily gain an audience within the enterprise.
The question therefore, should be what is there within these behaviours and technologies that will allow the enterprise to achieve more with less and deliver more than it is already? What do these behaviour and technologies mean for improving existing practice in order to raise productivity, increase innovation and thus, create of new wealth? Here the real potential of these developments can be realised.
Enterprise2.0 – realising the potential of participation
There are many dimensions of this question that I will not address here but in subsequent posts. For now I want to briefly examine some elements of the participatory culture of young people that hold out great potential for the Enterprise if adopted correctly. There are at least three areas to examine:
- First, the critical role of informal networks: the real potential of participatory culture lies not in participation as such, but the importance of the informal social relationships and interactions that underpin outcomes. Again, this insight is nothing particularly new and has been a focus of much attention inside the corporation since the Depression of the 1930s. Informal ties between people inside the enterprises working within established processes (often to get around these) is how things actually get done inside the enterprise. Mapping these and visualising them can reveal critical relationships (depending upon what problem you are trying to solve). But what the technologies also allow (which is new) is the ability to scale these connections, accumulate and aggregate the data to inform strategic planning, process reorganisation and above all, recognition;
- Second, peer-driven knowledge management: related to the above point, the formation of self-selected social networks create a more conducive context for sharing knowledge, precisely because they fulfill the need for self-expression and recognition. Used correctly (with the right balance between user-generated content, accumulated expertise, risk and reward) this can result in a far more effective collaborative working environment. It also overcomes the structural inertia of formal Knowledge Management systems allowing knowledge to be accessed at the point of need. Moreover, participation is self-motivating and thus knowledge sharing becomes a result rather than the object of the interaction;
- Third, hybridisation: the loss of a distinction between the offline and online within participatory youth culture suggests that the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the enterprise could be a fruitful area for innovation. This is not to suggest that we let it all hang out and ‘open’ the enterprise. That would be childish. But seeing the flows of information as a seamless one between the inside and the outside of the enterprise has immense potential for the creation of more efficient business processes. For example, monitoring what customers are saying about your brand using social media is worse than useless if it cannot be acted upon. But to act upon that effectively it might be necessary to direct an information flow to a supplier who, as the producer of a component being criticised, is in a better position to deal with this than any internal customer service employee. Allowing those flows and networks of expertise to seamlessly flow between the inside and the outside will turn complaint into satisfaction and brand equity. The challenge here is to work out how these insights can be best deployed within different corporate and business environments. But their potential value is certainly clear.
In summary, it is clear that the Millennial question and Enterprise2.0 is an important one that requires a lot more study and discussion. What I have tried to do here is provide some insights into this behaviour and critiqued the one-sided and superficial assertions made by people with the best intentions.
My parting shot is to stress this point about countering the tendency to getting carried away with the notion that this is all so new and unprecedented. Yes, there are new developments with important implications. But without a nuanced approach we do ourselves a disservice if we add to the hype and exaggerated sense of disruption and uncertainty. Just remember how email was first banned within the enterprise, then only given to the chosen few before it became indispensable and then a burden around the necks of all employees. The same thing occurred before than with the telephone and then the Blackberry. It is not surprising that when executives are confronted by ‘Social Media’ hype, their instinctive reaction is to do exactly what they did with the telephone, email and mobiles. Why give them that Neanderthal opportunity?
This historical amnesia is only good for social media gurus who want to sell books. Ironically, if we are to realise the potential of these behaviours and technologies, it is the continuities with the past that we need to stress.