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The Connected Web

Phil Wainewright

Keeping Pace with Generation Y

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The Internet has changed our kids — and they're going to change our businesses and our world. That was the message from consultant and writer Don Tapscott as he kicked off SaaS Summit in San Francisco last week with a keynote based on his latest book, Grown up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World.

His theme was that, far from corrupting our youth, the Internet has made Generation Y smarter, better achieving and more civically responsible than, well, my generation of baby boomers when we were growing up. Tapscott recalled the way people used to talk about a 'generation gap' in the 60s and 70s when older adults couldn't understand the younger generation and there was a feeling of confrontation between the generations. "We don't have a generation gap today," he said. "We have a generation lap. Kids are lapping their parents on the information track." But at the same time the kids are much more willing to help out their elders.

I certainly agree that Generation Y is prepared to take a more conciliatory approach than many of my own generation. A while ago I wrote a fairly aggressive blog post posing the question, How does Twitter not make money?. Noting that many users of the microblogging service were running up high SMS bills, I suggested that Twitter had to be taking a cut of those fees: "I don't see how, if Twitter's founders have as much as an iota of commercial sense or understanding of the industry in which they operate, it is possible that they cannot be profiting."

What impressed me was when Twitter founder Ev Williams and Biz Stone immediately responded to refute the suggestion in a calm, measured way. They took on board my observation that Twitter should warn users more proactively about the risk of running up high SMS bills, at the same time as clearly quashing any notion they were profiting thereby. It was an object lesson how to deftly neutralize criticism as soon as it surfaces on the Web.

A more recent example was a Generation Y commenter responding to a post I published last month, What have we done? in which I bemoaned the apparent lack of business sense in today's young people: "Have we brought up an entire generation to believe that cash isn't important?" That commenter had a different perspective on what's important:

"Perhaps the give away mentality on the net like software that is joint developed and free to share and add to so long as credit is given is part of new paradigm thinking ... My own hopes though is that when things finally settle The pot might be different. How we judge value and worth may not be so dependent on the few but on collaboration and sharing. Hopefully a perception that everyone has the ability to share and add value. It will take a shift in thinking though. A shift in the way we perceive one another."

My takeaway is that Generation Y does have a different way of looking at the world, and however much we gray-haired elders may feel it's naive and unrealistic, those values do have something to offer and we should meet them at least halfway, because sooner or later they're going to take over anyway. That's the essence of Tapscott's message. He talks about the huge skills Generation Y has developed in self-organization and its expectation that work should spill over into collaboration, learning and having fun. "The social network is becoming the new operating system of business," he concluded. Many of us older people are skeptical, with little understanding of how it works — and we do need to build enterprise-class principles of accountability and governance into it — but if our enterprises are going to get ahead in this new era, we're going to have to embrace it.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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