Applying the Digital Mindset to Management
Every twenty years or so, a new generation comes into the workforce, and the rest of us, quite frankly, freak out about it.
Today, it is the Millennial generation (born 1982 to 2004) that is upsetting the apple cart, with what the older generations see as their sense of entitlement, informality, and impatience, but back in the 1990s, young Generation X was the “problem,” with its disrespect for authority positions and overt cynicism. A few decades earlier, the Baby Boomers were entering young adulthood and throwing the older generations for a loop with their long hair, protests, and self-focus. This has been going on since the dawn of time. And all of the teeth-gnashing and fist-shaking directed at whichever generation is coming onto the scene is mostly a waste of time. Over the long run, that younger generation always grows up to become part of the status quo.
Traditional management is clearly and measurably in decline, although up until now it has been changing at a somewhat glacial pace. The social media revolution has moved much more quickly and has seeped into every aspect of organizational life, but by itself it is never going to fully revolutionize management. It needs a catalyst—like the Millennials.
One clear element that sets the Millennial generation apart from the rest of us is the fact that they have grown up in a digital world. They don’t actually find it amazing that Google can generate so many millions of highly relevant search results in a fraction of a second. That’s just normal to them. They get social media at a deep level, as they have been friending and following and posting from a very young age. They are digital, through and through.
The social media revolution has moved much more quickly and has seeped into every aspect of organizational life, but by itself it is never going to fully revolutionize management. It needs a catalyst—like the Millennials.
Of course the digital revolution has not been lost on the rest of us, either. I dare say there are a few Baby Boomers and Generation Xers in this League of Extraordinary Thinkers that know a thing or two about digital and social. Leaders of all ages have been making their organizations digital, embracing new technologies, and moving us all towards being more social businesses.
But the Millennials will be expecting more than just adoption of new tools, they will be expecting a digital mindset, and that can be a challenge to traditional management. The digital mindset puts the user (customer, member, etc.) at the center of the universe, even though they are a diverse and complicated bunch. Think about software designers and their focus on user experience (UX). They have to make sure their product works on multiple platforms and multiple for devices for users who each may use the product in a very different way. That’s really hard work for the designer—but that’s what they do, because in a digital world, we expect those kinds of results. We expect customization and flexibility.
But our organizations don’t. They expect predictability, uniformity, and consistency, and that’s becoming a real problem, particularly if you want to increase employee engagement. For our book, we studied a small nonprofit that truly embraced the digital mindset. They redesigned their entire office space with the employees’ needs in mind. That means the CEO has a desk in a pod out in the main room just like everyone else—simply because making him accessible made everyone else’s job easier. They even altered their HR processes with the employees in mind. They will rewrite their job descriptions on an annual basis, based on the specific career paths and development of the individual employees. If that sounds harder on the organization, that’s because it is. In the digital world, you succeed by making it easier for the user. Period. (And in this case, the user of the culture is the employee). But the organization benefits tremendously from the engagement and commitment their employees give. In fact, most of them simply could not imagine working for another organization. “This place cares more about us,” said one employee, “so we should care more about this place.”
Millennials will be expecting more than just adoption of new tools, they will be expecting a digital mindset, and that can be a challenge to traditional management.
So as you try to move your organization into this digital age, by all means make sure you are keeping up with the technology changes. Stop making your entry-level employees use the three-year-old laptop with the missing keys, for Pete’s sake. Invest smartly in technology. But even more importantly, start to make the internal changes you need to make in order to embrace the digital mindset. Put both your customers and your employees first and watch the engagement grow. Create space for experimentation and watch the innovation happen. Challenge those management practices that haven’t changed for decades (I’m looking at you, HR), and infuse them with the digital mindset. You’ll get better results, and become more attractive to those Millennial recruits in the process.
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