The generation game

This content is 14 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Creating innovative ways to align IT with business needs is one of the main functions of our office. Ever since the early days of computing, IT departments have been trying to close the gap between end user requirements and service provision. Now changing attitudes to work are a frequent topic of conversation and, whereas we’re often talking about technological change, a number of recent events have highlighted the wider social impact.

In the last 20 years, we’ve seen some pretty significant advancements – not only in terms of technology but in attitudes too:

  • Do you remember the typing pool? In 2011, the idea of a room full of secretarial staff employed to type memos dictated by management seems absurd!
  • There was a time when Microsoft’s vision of a computer on every desk and in every home seemed like science fiction but today we use a plethora of personal computing devices.
  • In the early 1990s, radio pagers were used for communications and only the duty manager had a mobile. Now our smartphones have more computing power than the PCs of that era.
  • Bulletin boards, accessed via modems, and Ceefax, accessed through television, have been replaced by the worldwide web, itself transformed beyond recognition into today’s massive content distribution system that is becoming embedded in many elements of our lives.

Even this blog post is an example of changing attitudes: it’s informal but written for a customer audience; unedited by the marketing department but with clear expectations as to what is acceptable to discuss in a public forum. It’s unthinkable that we would have been able to communicate like this more than a few years ago.

Generation Y, or the millennial generation, as we term those born between 1980 and 2000, is witnessing ever-increasing technological change and expects major social changes too. Horizontal silos are forming within organisations, loosely based around generations of employees who think and communicate in entirely different ways. Take these examples:

  • Formality. We work in a very informal society and it’s rare to refer to colleagues, senior management, or even customers, using their title and surname.
  • Speed. We expect results: faster; and accuracy is often less important than speed of access to information (we can refine the details later – but need to make decisions now!).
  • Quality. Whereas previous generations expected a device or product to last for years, younger generations are happy to replace it with a newer model much more quickly. This affects buying patterns, but also the standards to which goods and services are produced.
  • Communications. Whilst older generations will send a birthday card, generation Y is happy with a message on Facebook. Baby boomers and generation X may communicate by phone or e-mail but generation Y uses text messages, instant messaging and social networks.
  • Familiarity. Whereas baby boomers may like to see pages with detailed information about a given topic; generation Y is happy with snippets of information.
  • Deference. Previous generations were taught to defer to their elders but today’s young people are much more prepared to challenge and question.
  • Education. A degree is no longer an indicator of excellence; instead, it’s expected from almost everyone.
  • Recession. The generation entering the workplace now is the first that will, in all likelihood, earn less than their parents (and yet have higher expectations).

Every generation brings a new approach and some people find the resulting changes easier to adapt to than others. In a few years’ time, today’s graduate entrants will be running our businesses and it seems that, as we experience an accelerated pace of technological change, there’s also an accelerating gap in attitudes between generations.

For many years, we’ve been trying to align IT to business needs and it’s still a challenge at times. Perhaps now is the time to start thinking about the social needs of business end users, before that gap widens too?

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog and was jointly authored with Ian Mitchell.]