Accenture Technology Labs recently put together a small, informal, internal briefing on Generation-Y, which is entering the workforce in ever-larger numbers. Gen-Y is sometimes perceived similarly to the way the hippy generation of the 1960s and 1970s was. In particular, they're thought to be impatient with hierarchy; to take orders badly; to be non-conformist; and not to be motivated by money. Of course, as Dave Barry once put it, the hippies' cherished values ultimately "had a huge impact on which radio stations they listen to as they drive their BMWs to their brokerage houses." So maybe we should take that assessment with a grain of salt. The question is whether, nonetheless, Gen-Y will have a significant impact on the workplace. We decided that there's one way in which it will.
The workplace won't change because of Gen-Y's values. It'll change because of their tools. In particular, social networking tools. Now, if you're like me you are sick unto death of hearing about MySpace, FaceBook and LinkedIn. But part of the reason they keep coming up is that they're important. (The rest of the reason is that they're smack in the middle of a media-perpetuated hypefest, but we'll leave that aside.)
Specifically, these tools are important because of "weak ties." I used to deride MySpace as a morass of puddle (as in shallow) relationships with members who didn't really "know" one another and never really would, but then I learned about weak ties. This is a concept from anthropology that describes the relationships you have with acquaintances and contrasts with the "strong ties" you have with kin and friends. Those with whom you have strong ties largely share your knowledge, beliefs, language and attitudes--and they communicate easily with you. Those with whom you have weak ties...don't.
So what's the point of having weak ties (acquaintances)? Well, acquaintances are where out-of-left-field solutions come from (because they know lots of things you don't) and also where new contacts come from (because they know lots of people you don't). Acquaintances are thus very important if you're job hunting, for example. In fact, if you're looking for a job you may be much better off with 10 weak ties than you would be with 10 strong ones.
So one of the most important assets Gen-Y will bring to the workplace is its Facebook account: an enormous "rolodex" of acquaintances--probably larger, more varied and better maintained than those of top management. Enterprises will be well-advised to encourage cultivation of this contact list--in other words, to let their employees "play" on FaceBook--since this activity will serve as a source of new customers and recruits.
For better or worse, it will also serve as a rich source of job prospects: Members of Gen-Y--with their hundreds of weak ties--will find it much easier to jump ship than previous generations. (I didn't say it was all good news.) In preparation for this new era, you should probably take the elementary precautions of eliminating your hierarchy, giving vague suggestions rather than orders, and decorating your lobby with something non-conformist like strobe lights and hookahs. It never hurts to be careful.