FCW Forum | Web 2.0

Living young in the digital age

Managers who understand the Net Generation can transform government

If you’re a manager who needs to understand new, young federal workers, there is a new book for you. If you are a federal employee between 18 and 29, this book is about you.

“Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World” is based on interviews with thousands of members of the Net Generation. Author Don Tapscott, who also wrote “Wikinomics,” “Paradigm Shift” and “The Digital Economy,” describes the implications of that generation’s experience for education, the workforce and society.

His observations and conclusions contradict the stereotypes of that generation.

Do you think today’s young people are addicted to the Internet and cell phone texting, losing social skills, lacking commitment, stealing intellectual property, and devoid of a work ethic? Think again, Tapscott says.

In fact, members of the Net Generation prize freedom of choice and want to customize things and make them their own. They are natural collaborators who enjoy conversation. They insist on integrity. They also want to have fun, even at work. For them, speed is normal and innovation is part of life.

In short, to know these young people is to meet the future. Understanding them is to see ways to change your organization and possibly government itself. Given the way the Barack Obama campaign and transition have capitalized on the Internet and engaged millions of young followers in the process, the lessons of the Net Generation are timely.

Tapscott believes that the norms of the Net Generation are the basis for high-performing organizations of the 21st century. But too often, these Net Gen-ers are turned off by what they find in new jobs.

“The Net Gen-er arrives at work, eager to use his social- networking tools to collaborate and create and contribute,” Tapscott wrote.

Too often, he finds “the company he works for still thinks the Net is about Web sites presenting information, rather than a Web 2.0 collaboration platform.” Organizations that ban Facebook and other social-networking sites, assuming them to be frivolous timewasters, deprive the young workers of their links to the world outside the office.

And in an environment where many organizations are awakening to that reality and leave the sites available, talent heads for the exit of those that don’t, he wrote.

He added, “The Net Gen wants to take a digital break; the boomer employers shut them down. Get ready for the generational clashes.” It’s not hard to avoid those kinds of clashes with some foresight. Tapscott offers these tips:

  • Think of the Net Generation behavior as the new culture of work. Members of this generation will become increasingly numerous and older employees fewer until the transition is complete.
  • Rethink authority. Be a good leader, but understand in some areas you will be the student.
  • Initiate relationships. Use social networks to influence the way young people perceive your organization.
  • Rethink training. Instead of separate training programs, strengthen the learning component of jobs. Encourage employees to blog.
  • Harness Facebook, social networks and new tools such as Wikis, blogs and RSS feeds. Give Net Gen-ers a chance to put collaborative tools to good use.

In Tapscott’s view, the Net Generation can be the change model for government — if the government will let it.

About the Author

Judith Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

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