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Ready or Not, Here Come the Net Kids

February 1, 2000
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Michael Furdyk and Michael Hayman have made all the right moves.

The company they co-founded, BuyBuddy.com, an online computer and software comparison shopping service, has been on the fast track since it was launched in March of 1999.

They doubled staffing after securing venture capital in October and are planning a move into larger quarters that will replace the open space where employees are free to shape the work environment to their own tastes and where desks are strictly optional. Sofas, pillows and throw rugs are the furnishings of this close-knit corporate culture of people who are highly motivated, hardworking, self-directed and creative.

It’s no wonder, then, that Furdyk and Hayman are confident about their management style, their training, and their business objectives. Their flexibility, trust, and a hands-off management philosophy work very well in this environment, which should be no surprise because this is the second company they’ve founded (they sold their first, mydesktop.com, for an amount reported to be seven figures).

What is astonishing, though, is the fact that Michael Furdyk is 17 years old, Michael Hayman is 19, and most of their employees are in their late teens and early 20s!

Welcome to the Net Generation, whose ranks include young, very young, people who are already entering the workforce and are reshaping the nature of work in the very same way their Baby Boomer parents reinvented a very different world.

Leave behind your quips about "uppity children" and your prejudices about the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, and take a long, close look at these "kids." They’re the ones who teach you how to use your computer; they’re the ones whose role models are Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Tiger Woods.

Who are these people?
They are the 81 million children born between 1977 and 1997. "This is the first generation to be raised with the Internet," says Don Tapscott, author of "Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation" (McGraw-Hill, 1998). "The Internet, computers, and interactive technology are changing every institution in our society. And, this is the first time in human history when children are an authority on something really important. These kids are a part of a big revolution that is changing everything. When they enter the workforce, they bring a very different culture with them and a very different view of authority, of work, and of innovation."

Talk to researchers, psychologists, and marketing specialists about this group, and you’ll discover they attribute overall positive traits to these youngsters. The Net Generation is known to be initiators and doers, not passive observers. They’re creators, not recipients. And they are curious, contrarian, flexible, collaborative and high in self-esteem.

Because of the Internet, they read, write, collaborate and develop strategies while online. And they’ve been raised with a global vision and an intuitive understanding of today’s technology. Critically important to business, they understand the idea of knowledge sharing on a visceral level, and they believe in creating wealth. Remember, they share stories with their friends about students who’ve sold dot-com businesses for millions.

Says Tapscott, this leads to huge pressures for radical changes in existing companies. In other words, we’re in the midst of profound change. For example, Netters search for information and develop thinking and investigating skills; they also question the implicit values contained in information. In fact, Tapscott points out, the knowledge hierarchy is flipped on its head.

"In the past" he says, "parents have always been the authorities on everything (with the exception of children of immigrants). But now, children know more than the adults in the major communications device of our time."

Contrary to popular opinion, the Net Generation is the most well educated group in the United States in the last century, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. They’re also among the most privileged, coming of age at a time of continuing prosperity.

The vast majority of them expect both parents to work. According to Denver-based Claire Raines, co-author of "Generations at Work" (AMACOM, 2000), their boomer parents see themselves as devoted, and will do whatever it takes to be good parents: weekly soccer matches, dance and karate classes, computer camps, and so on.

Indeed, according to the Roper Youth Report, published by New York City-based Roper Starch Worldwide, 82 percent of kids 8 to 17 feel that they are very or somewhat likely to have a better life than their parents. In fact, 37 percent of 17-year-olds say they are very likely to have a better life than their parents.

"This is a reflection that many of these kids, like their parents, are receiving an almost constant avalanche of good economic news," says Peter Silsbee, vice president at Roper Starch. "And one of the tributaries of that river to the waterfall of economic news is news about young people 20-year-olds who are benefiting from the Internet economy. Kids experience a gold rush mentality regarding the Internet."

What are the challenges they present to HR?
Given the role models of this generation, the number of dot-com millionaires under 25 years old, and the world view of this group, they present an interesting array of issues to HR. Add to that the fact that a large percentage of these people were raised as latchkey kids who learned to take care of themselves early on.

"These kids have extraordinarily high expectations," says Silsbee. "They are going to have some trouble with long, drawn-out apprentice periods."

Interestingly, Silsbee sees the abandonment of authoritarian structures at home. "More and more within the family unit, they’ve been given a voice. Parents give kids more freedom and autonomy; they have more and more influence over family purchases; they have real responsibilities." In other words, they will be impatient and expect more than menial jobs.

At the same time, the kind of after-school part-time job that was commonplace just a decade ago is also changing. Carol Hickman, senior manager of benefits and HRMS for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade in South Burlington, Vermont, thinks that the current affluence in the United States is reflected in kids’ being able to choose extracurricular activities over part-time retail jobs.

"It’s my gut feeling that you’re going to see these kids go into college and very quickly rise through organizations," says Hickman. "I think this is going to be a generation where a lot of them are starting their own businesses and are making a lot of money. They aren’t going to be satisfied sitting behind a desk and pushing paper. In fact, companies that don’t get technically savvy are probably not going to get the employees to work for them. Computers are second nature to them, and I see them getting very bored if they don’t have technology at their fingertips to use when they need it. Whatever they do, they do it very quickly."

Of course, this is only one segment of the population. There is, of course, a less-privileged group of individuals who may not have had the same access to technology, nor the same chances to learn from it. It may not be based on affluence either, but on availability and the chances to use the technologies to full advantage.

Even students who graduate from high school don’t have equal opportunity on the Internet. The National Center for Education Statistics states that 58 percent of schools where more than one-third of students are eligible for government assistance for school meals are connected to the Internet. In more affluent areas where only 10 percent of students receive aid, 78 percent are connected.

Furthermore, according to the Toronto-based Alliance for Converging Technologies, the ratio of U.S. public school students who have access to the Internet is 33 to 1, even though the ratio of students to computers is 9 to 1.

Beyond that, it is wise to remember that this is a generation that has seen more violence directed at their peers than previous generations. Elementary and high school crimes are commonplace problems. Certainly, school shootings also make traumatic impressions. How those will affect this generation, however, is still unclear.

How will managers have to treat them differently?
Trust in their capabilities and their commitment; communicate with them; create opportunities for teamwork and entrepreneurship; and approach situations with mutuality. Those will be the defining characteristics of a good working relationship between Net Generation workers and their older managers. Obviously, it requires some realigning of ideas.

Vicki Saunders, chief innovation architect at the Toronto-based NRG Group, knows what it’s all about. As close to the workplace of the future as you can get, her company focuses on taking techno-savvy youth between the ages of 14 and 24, and creating effective technology teams that are structured to be strongly entrepreneurial. The group might be young, but they work on real-life projects for organizations such as Xerox, Air Canada, and Visa that want fresh approaches for new products and services.

Saunders started with a team of 50 young people to work on 10 projects. It was management by teams, not by Saunders. When the group started, 35-year-old Saunders and her senior management team listed the 10 current projects on sheets of paper on the wall. They described each one and what kind of team members were needed (two designers, one content person, one marketing person, etc.). Then, Saunders and the senior team left the room with instructions for the youngsters to create the teams themselves. When they returned, of course, there were 16 people in one group and 2 in another. The kids complained that they couldn’t decide.

Saunders explained that in self-directed teams, everyone must work on the problem; it is not her responsibility to decide.

This was the first lesson. It was the beginning of taking "the wisdom of inexperience" and adding "the wisdom of experience" to find what Saunders calls "the sweet spot in the middle." She says that the wisdom of inexperience the passion is very powerful if you don’t try to control it, if you can set it free. "We believe the key mindset to drive success is [one in which] they believe possibilities are limitless keeping them in dreamscape while at the same time developing team skills."

These individual employees are incredibly demanding, really fast, totally media savvy, and always pushing the limits. And this offers tremendous advantages to clients if managers can learn to effectively harness the energy and stay open during the process. The results are impressive.

One group worked on a project for Visa. The team of youngsters interviewed the department heads to find out about marketing the card. All that the adults talked about were different features of the card, such as travel insurance and lost-card insurance. The company’s marketing focused on these benefits.

All that the kids wanted to know was, "What’s my limit?" That was all. They didn’t care about anything else. They clearly explained that to the senior people who were marketing benefits that were meaningless to teens.

Xerox hired a group to create a mission statement for the learning environment of the future. Four young people, ages 16 to 22, sat in a room for four days poring over boxes of material the company gave them about the ultimate learning environment.

Then the kids asked one of their first questions. "What is a mission statement?" The Xerox managers described it, saying the team was creating a statement that would engage people in learning.

"The [team] just looked at them," says Saunders. "They were stunned, and asked, ‘How can a statement get you excited? It is just a statement. There’s no call to action.’"

They dug deep and struggled, and had conversations all week, and realized in the end that it had to be a question. It had to be several questions. Only questions open you up to inquire.

Ultimately, they came up with five questions: What do you want? What do you have? What do you need? How are you going to get it? What are you going to do with it?

Says Saunders, those five questions served as one of the most powerful tools for The NRG Group, as well as Xerox. Whenever someone would get stuck on a project, they would ask themselves what they want, then they would strategize about how to get it. Finally, they would ask the question at the end, which is the feedback question: What are you going to do with it? Is there a point to what you want?

The managers at Xerox were elated when the group made the presentation about the learning center. Before they even got to the final questions, the team of Netters took the Xerox team through a 45-minute presentation.

In fact, Xerox said, the group had created the actual learning environment of the future in their process to create the mission statement. The lead manager printed the five questions on the back of his business cards after that, and handed them out to all of his clients.

Again, says Saunders, it’s their fresh perspective that’s so valuable. It’s that ability to help them to harness it within a structured organization.

However, with this energy and innovative talent comes impatience and some overconfidence. Saunders has to handle requests for doubling salary after two weeks because the youngsters believe they’re doing so much more than they thought they would have to do in the beginning. The group challenges Saunders to tell them why there should even be a salary scale. Then they ask her to explain how she adds value to the process. In other words, they can be exasperating.

How will they work within a corporate structure? Saunders thinks that will be the test. In her situation, they actually set up centers within the corporations to manage intergenerational teams. Bank of Canada was trying to mix generations and corporate cultures at the same time. Both young and more mature members of the team would undergo training.

When a young person would ask how to do something, the response might be, "You can’t do that." And the youngster’s first reaction would be, "Of course I can do it. I just did it."

They also would get frustrated by people in bureaucracies going through channels. Much of Saunders' coaching of the teens centered on these issues: dealing with difficult personalities, helping them focus on the outcome and the bigger picture of the project rather than the small frustrations along the way.

How will training need to be different?
How do these individuals learn? Forget the idea of a classroom setting. Lifelong learning is a given with this group. Michael Furdyk has an educational coach because he’s too busy running a successful firm to finish high school in the traditional way. Anyway, why should learning be separated from work?

Every age group may know you have to keep your skills current today, but Netters know firsthand the nanosecond longevity of information on the Internet. Their recreation includes learning.

"We’re going to have to look at training in different ways," says Hickman. "Some won’t be happy sitting in a classroom setting; others won’t be able to learn as well online. Companies are going to have to look at the target audience and offer a variety of ways to handle the teaching." No matter what they do, information will have to be presented in an engaging, exciting way. It will have to be relevant to the learner and available whenever the employee needs it.

You might ask Michael Furdyk, and he’ll tell you that competitive pay, stock options, and generous performance bonuses are just starting points of the deal for this group. Flexibility, trust and incentives are key values in the culture, and the ability to share in the information and in the creation of the wealth is a must.

This group of young people is just starting to make their presence felt in the workforce. Expect flexibility: they’ve been raised in households of single parents or dual careers, and they know firsthand what work/life balance is all about. They want the opportunity to be taken seriously from the beginning, to prove themselves on the basis of talent and skills, and not be dismissed because of age.

They are a demanding bunch, but they respect the society that has given them such affluence, and they respect their elders who have created the culture in which they are now going to participate. They want the chance to make a difference and begin to launch the 21st century.

Workforce, February 2000, Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 62-68.

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