01/04/2011

By Thomas a Stewart, Chief Marketing and Knowledge Officer of Booz & Co.

"Work is not work. It’s a hobby that you happen to get paid for.” That’s the mantra of today’s desirable young worker. And forward-thinking companies are tapping into it.

I didn’t write that. Nina Munk did, in Fortune in 1998. To be young then was to be a member of Generation X. To be desirable went without saying: Unemployment was negligible, the dot-com bubble had two years to run, and X was (and is) a small generation. Much was published about managing this seemingly exotic cohort, by sources ranging from the U.S. Government’s Office of Personnel Management (”Constructive feedback facilitates learning and [provides] an opportunity for growth – two very important factors in managing Generation X”) to CNN (”They expect to learn as they work”) to China Daily (”Flexibility is the key to managing Generation-X”).

Well, the torch has passed to a new generation-Y, or the Millennials. These new young ‘uns are supposed to be way different from the old young ‘uns. Funny, though, how familiar the management prescriptions are. Millennials look “for feedback about how they are doing frequently – even daily,” according toAbout.com. “Gen-Y wants learning opportunities,” says Business Insider. And here at BNET we learn that Deloitte “has retrained its management to adjust to Millennials’ desire for flextime.

Does any of this matter? Every new generation has something new about it. I mean, d’oh. This is why Beloit College annually describes the childhood experiences of incoming freshmen, this year “a post-email generation for whom the digital world is routine and technology is just too slow.” I look forward to the list every year—but how important is it? I dare say that new entrants in the workforce have always wanted feedback, growth, and flexibility. Every generation also has something old, something borrowed, and something blue.

Last time I proposed three things about Millennials that are important from the standpoint of market strategy. The sheer amount of demand because this will be the first largely middle-class generation in gi-normous markets like China, India, and Brazil; the sales and marketing remix implicit in the digital convergence of all media; and the organization-design opportunities opened up by the reintegration of work and life.

Each of these has an inside analog, i.e., big implications for talent strategy and HR leadership.

Diversity: This time we mean it. The way you recruit and promote will change as the global economy’s center of mass moves. Traditional leadership pipelines are connected to wells that drying up. Economist Sylvia Hewlett and the Center for Work-Life Policycalculate that white males account for just 17% of the global talent pool (defined as individuals with a bachelor’s degree); at the same time, in emerging economies like Russia, the Middle East, and India, skilled ambitious women face obstacles that developed economies started dismantling half a century ago. That they remain high in the West speaks powerfully about how hard a challenge this is.

Communication: Blow up the dams. CIOs (Chief Information Officer) already know that they can’t maintain the distinction between “legal’ and “illegal” applications at work. People want to work from home and insist on playing and shopping at work. Five years ago in San Francisco, Sun Microsystems’s then-CEO Jonathan Schwartz told a gathering that a young employee suggested he stop e-mailing memos to the company and instead “post them on my Facebook wall”—an impossible idea, Schwartz said, given the need for confidentiality. A couple of weeks ago in London, a friend told me about a company whose leaders believe they won’t use e-mail in five years, and instead will communicate via team wikis – and posts on something like Facebook walls. The technology shift is less important than the mind shift. Companies will have to give up yet another degree of control—and seek competitive advantage less from how well they keep secrets than from how well they exploit openness.

Careers: No beaten paths. For Boomers, an ex-pat assignment was a good way to ruin a promising career; that’s how hard it was to get back on track. Now it’s impossible to imagine a CEO candidacy that doesn’t include a gig abroad. For Xers, loyalty was an antique. A career path was a series of jumps, forward and lateral, like a game of Chinese Checkers. This attitude might have had a lot to do with the fact that demand for talent exceeded its supply. Millennials also profess a desire to have many different kinds of experiences—but with one company. This, too, may be a function of the job market. But it also represents an opportunity to build what Nobel Prizewinning economist Gary Becker calls “firm-specific human capital” —talent that is shaped by and becomes especially valuable to the capabilities system and strategy of a given enterprise.

To seize that opportunity, strategists will have to answer a question most of them fob off to HR (Human Resources). Because so many strategists are left-brain, analytic types, they ignore what may be the most important strategy questions of all: What kinds of people do we need in order to succeed at the game we’ve chosen to play? What kinds of experiences do we want to give them as they develop?

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