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Are we right to be concerned about Millennials and is it for the right reason?

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Started by David Griffiths on
21 Feb 2013 at 11:17

I have been reading a lot lately about the need for organisations to adapt to the needs of the Millennials (DOB 1981-2000).  Usually these articles focus on the shock the Millenial generation is about to bring to established systems and the need for controlled destruction of an organisation’s governing norms, in order to accommodate the Millennials (think digital/social media and gaming experience, as an example).

We are reminded that their education has been different, that they are more connected than ever before and they know how to utilise and accelerate the power of their networks.  Employers are warned of the impact of digital classrooms, of gamification of learning, of flexible approaches to work, of the workplace needing to be ‘fun’, of an aversion to hierarchical organisational structures, and of their social-networking savvy.

Really?  Before we set about the destruction of all that we know to accommodate this new super generation, perhaps we should pause for a little thought.  How about an anti-problem?

Why are so many employers, in the EU and US in particular, complaining about a shortage of critical thinking and networking/communication skills?  A typical example form the accounting/finance sector, but you can replicate this sentiment across pharma, hydrocarbon, government et al.:

“77% of respondents [Pulse of the Profession Survey] said analytical/critical thinking is a key skill they’ll seek in recruitment, and 66% said that about communication skills”
(Journal of accountancy, Dec 20th, 2012)

Expanding on the problem, does the upcoming generation understand how to learn, or are organisations going to have to invest in ‘learning to learn’ programmes to underpin their need for critical thinking, networking and communication skills?  For example, the UK was ranked 6th and the US 17th in the world, based on the Pearson education rankings (with data taken from 2006-2010):

“There are direct economic consequences of high and low performing education systems, the study says, particularly in a globalised, skill-based economy” (www.bbc.com, Nov 2012)

The output (critical thinking, networking and communication skills) will only be as good as the input and the quality (efficiency and effectiveness) of the transforming resources (teachers).  If there is a deficiency, and the data from employers across sectors suggests there is, then it will be down to organisations, especially ones that are working to become resilient, to spot talent and act as the transforming resource; effectively teaching new hires to ‘learn to learn’.

Then there is the idea that Millennials are a different breed, brought up on video games and a thirst to learn via gamification.  Is this more myth than reality?  There is evidence to support this view, such as this excerpt from Forbes:

“Renowned authors and managers like John Hagel III (author of The Power of Pull) advise business and management students to leave the university path and start playing the game World of Warcraft, because leading a guild with 25 plus members to slaughter dragons and complete missions are full management experiences that can’t be taught in the existing education system. You need to recruit and interview new guild members, debrief the team, plan, prepare and execute the missions. Former Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillet is the most prominent example of someone who attributes part of his career success (my emphasis – note, ‘only part’, but enough, apparently, to warrant leaving the HEI path) to the management skills he learned as Guild Master in the MMORPG World of Warcraft”

We are talking about the Millennials, right?  because I could argue that this experience is more the exception than the rule.  For those with children, between 12 and 32, how much different were their classrooms from yours?  Seriously, take away a smattering of technology (whiteboards, PowerPoint, digital projectors instead of OHPs), was it really that different?  Don’t confuse tech savvy, tethering to mobile technology and an intimate relationship with Facebook, with transferable knowledge and skills around social networking and communication.  Also, don’t fall into the trap of believing that Millennials regard Twitter, Wikis and blogging as second nature.

“Certain new technologies were only used by a minority of students regardless of their age: contributing to blogs (21.5 per cent) and wikis (12.1 per cent) or using a virtual world (2 per cent)”

“There was little evidence that today’s students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet.” (Science Daily, 2012)

Reflecting on my own experiences with US Business Schools and UK Universities, you would be shocked at the number of Millennials who struggle to come to terms with the practical uses of Twitter or the use of blogs and/or Wikis.  Moving on, what about persistent signals from the workplace, from employers complaining about a lack of work ethic and the problem of a generation driven by a thirst for instant gratification:

“Children between age 10 to 28 have grown up in a “trophy generation.” Everyone is a winner. Everyone get’s a prize. If we give them the illusion that they’re special and awesome, I understand that. But they’re going to go to college with a bunch of other special and awesome kids,”…

“We have college students who have been raised by expert business people and it has  been communicated to them that you can talk your way into a better place in life,”…The result?…there’s a flood of college grads who aren’t prepared to enter the workforce, or step up as leaders” (abc news, 2012)

Now, link this to the needs of resilient organisations (eg. problem-solvers, critical thinkers, networkers, people who can deal with flux and ambiguity), cross reference this with the signals of a dissatisfaction of the level of key knowledge, skills and behaviours in the work-pool, and we have a problem.

Could it be that this super generation is actually about to become Kryptonite around the necks of resilient thinking organisations?  Each generation will make its own unique mark on society, but maybe, just maybe, the Millennials are adrift from the needs of the environment.  Will they need more scaffolding than past generations, as they adjust to a complex business world? For example, taking a UK perspective, what will be the implications of Labour’s ‘Nanny-State’ influence upon society, where, one could argue, competition has been sucked out of the system (from school sports to health care provision) – nothing like being contentious in a Sunday blog?  It begs the question, one that applies to many other countries, are UK Millennials as personally resilient as they need to be to succeed in the modern world?

Don’t get me wrong, there is much to learn from the Millennial generation, such as the benefits of gamification in the workplace, but before we get carried away by thoughts of controlled destruction of what we are already doing, we just might want to make sure we are not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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