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Riding The Wave Of Technological Change

When it comes to developing a tech-savvy workforce, leadership is coming from the grassroots

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at paddleink@gmail.com, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at CalgaryBusinessWriter.com.

Jul 2, 2014

by Marzena Czarnecka

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Illustration Kyle Metcalf

Quick, this is a pop quiz: what sort of technological know-how will the workforce of tomorrow need?

Yes, it’s a trick question: if you’ve answered with anything other than, “I haven’t a clue,” you’re a liar. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Mr. Leveraging Social Media Expert. And you, Ms. Bring-Your-Own-Device Prophet. And don’t get me started on the extent of your professional prevarications, Dr. Collaborative Learning Environments.

“Ten years ago, Facebook didn’t exist. Ten years before that, we didn’t have the web. So who knows what jobs will be born a decade from now?” Steven Gottlieb, Time Magazine

See, here’s the thing about almost everything that’s written about the technology of tomorrow: it’s really about the technology and reality of today. About half, maybe more, of the experts performing in the field are people who, frankly, neither understand nor fully leverage what’s available today. So how can they possibly teach you anything about what you and your people will need tomorrow?

Worse: Most of today’s organizations are still struggling with how to adapt to the tech savvy workforce of today. Much of the “classical” writing about implementing technological change and fostering tech adaptability in organizations is written from the, “Management is rolling out this new system – here’s how to sell/train your employees on it.” But arguably the most creative-chaotic change in workplaces right now has come from the grassroots: from employees adopting, enthusiastically, new toys, new ways of connecting, new ways of working, and bringing those into workplaces unequipped to support them either with infrastructure or policy.

Even leading technological companies struggle with this.

“Thee years ago, if you approached our IT people and said, ‘I want an Apple,’ we’d say, ‘We don’t do Apple, here’s a PC,’ ” says John Piercy, vice-president of business with Shaw Communications. Fast-forward (or, if you’re an impatient millennial, slow-forward) to 2014, and Piercy’s portable work device is an iPad. His laptop rarely leaves his desk or his office. “Bring-your-own-device is the new norm,” Piercy says.

But just because this workplace tech revolution is driven from the grassroots, management is not absolved from putting in the necessary work on infrastructure and policy to enable it. Employees need Wi-Fi in conference rooms. They need different office layouts. Piercy, like many experts, sees this tech revolution abolishing cubicles in favour of more open, collaboration-friendly floor plans.

And the organization needs protection, be it encryption when your people are getting into your company’s private information innards while walking between buildings, or policy for setting out the respective rights and responsibilities of employer and employee in this brave new connected world.

Even the world’s largest organizations are still working this all out, and their gut reactions don’t always make sense. Too often, the conflict becomes about inter-generational politics because, yeah, tech-savvy and demographics are intimately intertwined.

“The younger generation adapts to change faster than the older generation,” says Piercy. But it’s the older generation who holds the power in most workplaces, and who writes the rules. In many ways, that setup is a recipe for organization disaster, or at least massive inefficiency and real-world disconnect. Again, the experts don’t help you as much as you need them to, because they too are from the “wrong” (old) generation. The Kenan-Flagler Business School Report in Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace (2012) is one of many great examples of experts missing the point: the authors work hard to tell you how to adapt your workplace to use those mysterious millennials. Most of their suggestions are behind the times: millennials are doing all the recommended things already, with or without your support, and so are your highest potential people in their 30s and 40s, too.

Here’s the thing: if they’re leading the way already … use them, right? Smart organizations do this.

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“With our new customer products, we will quite frequently give them to the people in our support area, where the average age is 20, and they play with it, and then they come back to us and tell us why it will or why it won’t work,” says Piercy. Brilliant, but rare. The most disturbing aspect of how today’s – and tomorrow’s – tech savvy workforce is discussed is the rather profound lack of understanding and respect for today’s and tomorrow’s tech-immersed workforce. The Global Trends’ Workforce for the Future briefing (February 2013) is a typical example: while nominally lauding that “the future workforce lies in the hands of today’s young, tech-savvy generations,” the description of this workforce, its relationship with technology and its employment expectations are, at best, patronizing.

But the “habits” and expectations of your youngest workers – they’re a gift. Listen: as Patrick A. Hyek, the tech industry leader at Ernst & Young, put it, “The key to prosperity [in the future economy] will be the ability to make information usable quickly and to secure ‘A-level’ talent capable of operating in a culture that not only identifies and reacts well to change, but also anticipates and creates it.” That’s them. That’s your millennials and their little brothers and sisters. And what a gift. They’re not afraid of change and the pace of change in the tech and communication industries. They’re always replacing devices, operating systems. Make virtue out of necessity – they will be most of your workforce at some point in the not-too-distant future – and try to run ahead of them.

Doing this is both really easy and really hard. Because, like most things about having a great organization, it’s about having a great culture: a culture built on a learning, adaptable workforce. And that means you – and your greying, arthritic peers, who still hold the keys to power in your company – have to be a learning, adaptable workforce.

I think you can do it, and not just because you’re reading this on your tablet in an airport in Houston, en route to Peru, where you’re going to (hey, could you email me a pic of yourself atop Machu Pichu? Thanks) combine business with pleasure in a way not possible until 2009. And your best people, regardless of demographic age, are pretty easy to sell on anything that makes them more efficient and productive.

But what about the stragglers? Because, let’s face it, the A-talent just takes what it needs without waiting for any, “We’re a learning organization! Take courses! Shake things up!” memos from above. But what about – Paul, who’s still complaining about the switch from DOS to Windows? Or, ehm, the chairman of the board, to whom you still have to courier everything … and whose assistant prints out every email?

Yeah. So here’s the thing: you can’t run an organization for them. Because … how can I put this not too offensively … uhm: they’re going to die (in the old days, we’d say “retire,” but that seems to be a phenomenon of yesterday rather than tomorrow). A tech-vested, excited, efficient, adaptable organization that implements and encourages technological and process changes that make people more productive and more efficient – in other words, an organization that implements changes that make sense and that educates its people about the how-and-why of these changes – will carry many of the less innately-tech-loving employees along. But there will always be stragglers and Luddites.

Don’t cater to them. They are not the people who move you forward.

Our Experts Recommend

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter M. Senge (2006)

10 Steps to a Learning Organization, by Peter Kline and Bernard Saunder (2010)

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow (2009)

The Resilient Organization: How Adaptive Cultures Thrive Even When Strategy Fails, by Liisa Välikangas (2010) Most importantly, get an audio book of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by sociobiologist Jared Diamond (2005, revised 2011) and learn how the Vikings, who thrived in Scandinavia, starved to death in Greenland because of their inability to recognize that their environment and what it took to succeed in it had changed.

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