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Monday, June 4, 2012

Another Generation Story - for a beloved CEO

The Board Meeting

A few weeks ago I had the privilege to lunch with two leading C.I.O’s. One item we discussed was the increasing difficulty faced by the C.I.O to bring an organization’s Board of Directors along for the I.T. journey.
We agreed that educating a Board of Directors on the true implications of the technology and information landscape’s evolution is becoming more and more important. 
It is no mystery that information technology and its management is fundamental to any business’ day-to-day operations and in most cases principal to its ongoing survival. A Board ignores this large important item on the company’s agenda and strategy at its own peril.
While the modern day C.I.O wrestles daily with the need for corporate information on-tap, technical complexity, fast-paced obsolesce, unwieldy organizations, heartless clients, and the next project staring infinite doom in the face, it somehow has to also beat the drum that sets the rhythm for boardroom decision making.
The question we got stuck on during this conversation was: “How best to bring an organization’s Board along for the journey when most Board members think I.T. are those overpriced people that fix PC’s?” This important duty needs to be undertaken while I.T. is considered the bottomless financial pit that talks in incomprehensible three letter acronyms, which they use for defining imminent “doom and disaster”. I.T. is what you need (to blame) if nothing else can be held accountable for poor business performance, rising cost, sluggish response, broken promises and product or service failures.
We have yet to land on a consensus answer for this dilemma. 
While pondering an approach, I was invited to attend such a meeting first hand where I was offered an opportunity to air my views on this and other more pressing technology related strategic matters for my client. 
The topic I chose for the main theme of the conversation was the generational implications of the corporate user base for I.T. Services. The crux of the dialogue reflected on the digital divide between the different age groups of users we serve in Corporate I.T., and their individual preferences and attitudes towards technology and information. I aimed to demonstrate that our traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to provisioning technology and information services for this diverse group of users was no longer meeting the needs of the modern day Knowledge Worker
As C.I.O’s we need to be sensitive to what each generation values and provide accordingly. If we do not, we risk losing valuable skill, disable talent, or worse, put our company out of business.
While the exchange was well received, it appeared to have been lost on one or more of the more important members of the party: Namely, the C.E.O. 
He politely reminded me at the next day’s postmortem, that if I ever worked on my iPhone during a Board meeting again, that he will not hesitate to “break my fingers”. While this will be a tumultuous feat for a man with his physical stature against my muscled frame, it got me thinking. 
Firstly, what irritates the baby boomer  generation so much about our use of technology (iPhones, Laptops, BlackBerries and more) during and for the purpose of meetings or conversations. 
Secondly, except for the primal fight or flight response when threatened with physical violence, why is it that when you touch a Generation X’s gadget (namely my use of the iPhone), are you also inherently touching his person
Thirdly, how would a Generation Y have responded (if it indeed made it, and were tolerated enough for a Board meeting)? 


It is clear that the different generations have different attitudes toward technology and their work environments. And yes, I am going to generalize and address broad categories in this Blog entry specific to knowledge workers
Please don’t be offended. By reading this Blog entry, you have already distinguished yourself. 
Let’s start with: 
The Fountain Pen and Office Memo Generation:
This is the generation that has grudgingly graduated away from the fountain pen and office memo towards the use of a personal computer. They are a league of employees loyal to the hand of their masters who promises stability, career progression, healthcare, succession and easy retirement.
Information technology in this era was practiced by Phd anointed scientists in white coats behind thick walls of heavily air conditioned rooms. The “computer” was the beast they tamed in the building downtown. The investment could be written off over ten years while they merrily took their sandwiches to work, striving for a spot on the next floor upstairs. Who knows: maybe one day that corner office with a secretary for tea, may become a reality.
Buying IBM never got anyone fired. 
Not too long after, a bunch of college dropout kids started to upset the applecart. What initially appeared to be merely a hobby fad had arrived with a bang in business. 
Suddenly, a fountain pen is only used for signing contracts and marriage certificates. The secretary no longer brings the tea. The corner office is under threat. Workers and executives alike are forced to use a mouse. The big building downtown had free space and they learned with horror that the boxes on their desks have double the capacity of the big iron investment they thought will last them ten years (five years ago).
Pillars of industry, men of stature, were faced with staring at flickering screens all day or perish. Only the really influential could afford a personal assistant for printing and typing their email.
The Gadget and Email Generation:
This generation doesn’t know how to work without a personal computer. They never had offices and the word secretary is offensive. They preferred to be “guns for hire” and went where work is interesting and where their needs for association and intellectual stimulation were met at a good hourly rate.
Instead, they are a generation of cubicle dwellers and email pushers. Their machines conform to a corporate standard, and the network is what separated them from the competition and the world “out there”. Antivirus software secured survival. 
Meetings were welcome interruptions to the monotony of “whack-a-(e)mail”, to the extend that it was confused with “work”. “It is what daddy does for a living my dear - meet all day.” This is what my wife told my daughter one day.
Information Technology was considered a competitive advantage, while investments lasted approximately five years before becoming obsolete (two years into the deal). 
Microsoft was king.
Soon they realized that the inability to take their personal computer with them to meetings only meant that they have to double productivity (i.e. “whack-many-more-(e)mails) when they get back to their box. Secondly, they then had to send the information onwards that was discussed in the meeting (read: do the meeting again via email, this time with the information you should have had with you in the meeting).
They aspired to a means (read: SmartPhone or Laptop) to take those pesky emails with them to meetings, so they can stay ahead of the game. When information is then discussed in a meeting, they may actually have it on hand for discussion (without having to fight a printer the half hour prior, as only alternative).
However, there were unintended positive consequences from smaller, mobile smart devices and meetings: People actually knew what they were talking about because they had the information in hand, literally. Where the others (without their gadgets) got actions assigned to them in the meeting minutes to go get, find out, forward, and send. Those with their gadgets already actioned their responsibilities. 
A new era arrived: Meetings with purpose that actually achieved something. Efficiency and outcomes.
Granted, to those not yet initiated to being productive, effective, connected and knowledgeable, it became a distracting irritant - having people in meetings playing with these little computers. Even more offensive to the uninitiated was how the gadget generation showed their disinterest when time was wasted. They will be working on their gadgets in meetings, guaranteed to be productive in unproductive moments.
Yet, there must be an even better way to work and communicate? 
The Always On, Work Anywhere Generation:
Having a gadget that liberates you from your personal computer and cubicle offers all kinds of possibilities. 
For the first time it is possible to communicate. Yes, truly communicate, instantly to masses, worldwide, and to the individual in many, many ways. Now there are email, forums, blogs, podcasts, tweets, IM’s, SMS, Skype, Video Chat, added to the traditional means of letters, telephone conversations, meetings, memos and telepathy. And, don’t forget the worldwide Interweb.
For the first time in human history we have ways to seek out audiences, collaborators and deliver messages that surpasses anything we’ve had, ever before (in physical existence at least). 
In the true sense of the word: “One can run but not hide.” 
Communicating in person is overrated and inefficient to this generation. Talking to one individual at a time distracts from the collective. Conversations are ongoing, always and everywhere, with everybody and anybody willing to listen(company or otherwise).
There are justifiable concern and questions about the quality and substance of all this conversation and the possibility of a lack thereof. However, the information that is communicated is still up to the communicator and the consuming audience to turn it into knowledge. There are now just more possibilities to deliver, consume and apply.  
All this is possible from anywhere as Internet access becomes ubiquitous and the network is everywhere. 
How is this influencing workspaces? 
For the first time, consuming, producing, collaborating, and applying information can happen almost everywhere on planet earth. Therefore, we are moving out of the office, past the cubicle and into to the Starbucks, home office, meeting place and workspace of choice in the physical world. As knowledge workers we can now truly work anywhere, anytime. As knowledge workers we demand the means to work anywhere and anytime.
It may only be in the online world where the company or organization can, and will be able to truly establish a traditional “work place” identity with like-minded individuals or groups assembling for a purpose, and contributing value in the process for reward (monetary or otherwise). 
The examples of these online organization around a common purpose or objective is evident in the initial stages of this development that we can find in open source communities, online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, marketplaces like Amazon, EBay, Blurb and communities like Linkedin and Spokenword
Some communities will be more selective of their participants and their beneficiaries. So will the company of the future be selective of its value contributors, and find ways to reward its collaborators. The construct of employee or contractor will disappear in favour of the “Contributor”. 
The contributor will be an individual, group or association adding value, owning their consumer’s problem and  creating service value (A simple, reliable, expectation aligned outcome, at a negligible fee). The I.T. of this world is the online assembled tools and accessed services available when and where required, in a similar fashion.
In more than one manner we may very well find ourselves in the online evolution of tribalism (See: Seth Godin) with the Company the tribe with which we choose to associate, and by who’s rules we subject ourselves in return for the benefits awarded in monetary and other terms. One big difference from the traditional construct is that we will belong to multiple tribes by choice: Our sports tribe, work tribe, hobby tribe, school tribe, professional tribe and more. The common thread in all of this is our ability to be always on, and work anywhere with any device.
What will be next?
It may not be long before the words of Vernon Vinge ring true and we find ourselves in a technological singularity where our technology is responsible for the amplification of human intelligence to the point that the resulting transhumans would be incomprehensible to their purely biological counterparts. Welcome to the Matrix.
Having broken fingers from using an iPhone in a Board meeting may be just a necessary step on the journey and evolution of the information worker of the future. On the other hand, broken fingers may just be what we need to save us from ourselves and our gadgets.
Your comments and views are always welcome.
Hendrik van Wyk

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