Author: Don't stick Gen Y in cubicle

Consultant Don Tapscott talks about how digital generation thinks, its impacts on modern corporations and how it should be managed in the workforce.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor on

Today's digital generation thinks differently, but corporations are not dealing with them effectively, said Don Tapscott.

Tapscott, nGenera Insight's chairman and author of Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, said such corporations include companies and advertising agencies, which are trying to interact with the "Gen Y" crowd.

He spoke to ZDNet Asia about how the digital generation thinks differently, and how companies should manage the arrival of this group of people to the workforce.

Q: We've had Gen X, and now Gen Y. What defines this group?
Tapscott: This is the first generation to come of age in the digital age. This is affecting their brains and how they think. My generation, the baby boomers, spent 24 hours a week watching TV.

When you're the passive recipient of video, that gives you a certain kind of brain. Young people today that have grown up using the technology are using an equivalent amount of time being active users instead. They're handling information, thinking, scrutinizing, multi-tasking. And this is affecting young people's brains. And it's for the good.

They come into the workforce, the market place, and society...there is no force more powerful.

What is different about the way that they think?
The eight norms of this generation are:

1. Freedom of choice. Choice is like oxygen. I had three media choices as a kid. There is also freedom of mobility. The goal in the past was to have one job for your whole life, where today in the U.S., by the time they're 27, they're on their third job. Freedom is a huge norm.

2. Customization. I never got to customize TV. You can change your world today, with your screensaver, your blog.

3. Scrutiny. They are a generation of authenticators. A picture used to be a picture. You see a woman on a magazine today, and you wonder how she's been photoshopped.

4. Integrity. It's just not true that this generation doesn't care. Youth volunteering in the U.S. is at an all-time high. And specific activities. They care about the world, about social justice.

5. Collaboration. Everybody collaborates, but these kids are natural collaborators. When I grew up, everything was a hierarchy, and I was used to being broadcasted to. One-size-fits-all. School and lectures and my parents broadcasted. Now there's a huge clash. These kids are sharing information, peer-to-peer, that's how you spend your time, instead of being a passive recipient.

6. Entertainment. They want to have fun. Having fun with a product or service is more important than what they do. Having fun in your first job is now more important than how much you get paid. The kids have got it right, learning and work can be the same thing.

7. Innovation. The speed of innovation when I was a kid was glacial. Today, people demand new improvement.

8. Speed. They want things to happen fast and quickly.

How have we managed this generation so far?
When this generation comes to the workforce, what do we do? We stick them in a cubicle, we try to supervise them. They have better tools at their fingertips than exists in most sophisticated corporations.

So then we ban them. We ban Facebook. The operating system of a corporation is the social network, but we ban it.

In schools, why would you go to a lecture from some junior professor when you can hear famous lecturers on YouTube? So what do we do? We fail them.

We do the opposite of what we should do in all our institutions, rather than investing more in digital media and creating relationships with this generation.

There is a perception that digital media is still less "serious" than traditional media. Do we need an online revolution to occur?

The perception is wrong. The biggest and most influential generation ever doesn't watch much TV. They come back home and they turn on their computers. They talk to their friends, and they have three magazines open, and they're also listening to music.

TV is like ambient media. It's like muzak. And when they watch TV, they're not only not watching, they cut out the advertisements. Sixty percent of the ads on TV are therefore not effective, because they are never seen. This is wasted investment.

What is your advice to bosses on how to manage this generation coming to the workforce?

The first thing is don't ban their tools. Don't ban Facebook. Embrace social networking, blogs, wikis.

Second, use the technology yourself. Have a little curiosity.

Third, set up reverse mentoring programs so you can learn from young minds. This will help tear down the generational firewall.

What would you tell Gen Y workers, on how to survive in today's corporation?

First of all, be patient. Understand that you're not an authority on everything. Some things take experience to understand.

Also, respect your own privacy. Young people are destroying their privacy online. That is very frightening. Thousands are not getting their dream jobs because their employers did a so-called reference check, and saw them doing something someone does at 17 that is not really them.

Don Tapscott was in Singapore as a guest of SAS, for its Premier Business Leadership Series event.

Editorial standards