I read a press release — yes, I occasionally do read them — and something caught my eye: that companies could learn from how the Millennials deal with the changing nature of work. So, I emailed the man behind the ideas, Avinoam Nowogrodski and we had a conversation via email, as the kick off to an interview series entitled The New Visionaries.
Avinoam has worked in the realm of project management for over 20 years, now as the CEO of work management company Clarizen, and prior to that as co-founder and CEO of SmarTeam Corporation, which was acquired by Dassault Systemes. Avinoam holds a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from Tel Aviv University, Israel.
Stowe Boyd: In an earlier exchange, you suggested that the other generations in the workforce could do well to learn from Millennials in the changing world of work. What are those characteristics we should be learning from?
Avinoam Nowogrodski: According to a recent Forbes article, by 2025 more than 80 million Millennials are projected to be in the workplace. On the one hand, some feel this brings a wave of ambitious individuals with high expectations. On the other hand, I believe Millennials, more than any other generation, stand to democratize collaboration, which in turn can empower individual workers of all ages.
Because Millennial workers were raised in the digital age of transparency, they are accustomed to posting their activities online and having their progress followed. For them, success at work is about proving their worth to the team and the project. They must have an online voice and be constantly augmenting that voice and adding clarity to the team. Millennials thrive on transparency and a sense of team cohesion, which is something that social media provides. Because they are used to interacting online regardless of their physical locations and the time of day, they will provide the impetus companies need to embrace workforce mobility.
SB: Presumably you are arguing that organizational culture is being changed by — and for — Millennials as they become more of a majority in the workplace. There are tensions between Millennials and Traditionalists, because the older cadres want to work hard and go home and disconnect, while Millennials and Gen Y are more liable to remain connected and lifeslice (and workslice) all the time. How to resolve those tensions about the form factor of work?
AN: It’s a bit of myth that Traditionalists unplug completely. The rise of the smartphone has touched all demographic groups. To your question, though, the point isn’t about making people work at times when they don’t want to. It’s about providing a collaborative environment that allows people to engage at the right time for them – that new type of collaboration that is not exclusively instant, or exclusively phased, but a combination of both, and rich in context. The benefit of this goes beyond generations and impacts geographically diverse workforces as well.
SB: What is the likelihood of Traditionalists and Boomers adopting those traits?
AN: It’s a myth that only millennials are social-savvy. People of all ages have been swept up by the social phenomenon. In fact, a study from the 2012 PEW Internet & Life Project study found that more than half of American adults over the age of 65 are online and almost two thirds of those same people use social networking websites.
For earlier generations, social technologies bring attention and respect to their experience and expertise. Think of it like the prom queen in pre-internet days. Everybody knew who her friends were, what she was doing, what she had to say. Social media makes us all the queen – or king – of the prom. It gives everyone a voice.
However, earlier generations have a well-developed sense of skepticism and privacy protection that needs to be respected. We prefer to think of the generations holistically as “Generation Collaboration” and stress the importance of developing processes and structures that meet all workers where they are. The trick is to deploy technologies and business processes that highlight the benefits of collaboration and transparency, while minimizing risks, both for individuals and for the company as a whole.
SB: The Millennial style of living a curated worklife — a stream of updates, conversational work patterns, and techniques like hashtags to annotate and organize unstructured information — requires technologies to support it. Perhaps that is a major distinction with Boomers and Traditionalists, for whom the foundation of work activities is not social tools. They grew up in a world before email. So this is the first generation for which social communication is foundational. What is the good and the bad of that?
AN: The shift to social communication didn’t just shuffle in an era of information; it created an era of democratization that is quickly infiltrating the business world. The good in this includes the increased celebration of employee participation, alignment and visibility, which gives people an understanding that their work matters. For Boomers and Traditionalists, it brings a lot of good. It’s extraordinarily gratifying to have a medium for expressing their unique expertise in a meaningful way. It brings their knowledge into the light. Also, adopting new technologies brings a sense of satisfaction and modernity – of keeping up with the pace of change.
It’s no longer about establishing rigid rules to blindly follow, but real-time transparency that encourages employee contribution. In fact, this new work culture will transform the quality of the work experience – and, ultimately, the work output. The net result? Democratized collaboration, empowered individuals and operational excellence.
Although democratized collaboration can improve the corporate bottom line, it does also present a challenge. Management needs to understand that a more democratized workplace isn’t a threat, but truly an opportunity for innovation and success. This is an occasion for breaking free from a productivity and innovation prevention that is inherent in hierarchical working environments. And at its foundation is the technology that will allow employees to move as far down the continuum that is comfortable for them.
SB: What do you envision as the counter to the innovation and productivity blocking style of traditional business? For example, when you are talking about democratized innovation, how does that jibe with the desire of most management to develop a corporate strategy and to communicate that to people across the company. How far does democratization go?
AN: This is a really great question. The most important thing for management to do is to share the corporate strategy and help employees realize that they have a part to play in reaching those goals. This is broader than corporate strategy – it’s time for a new type of leadership, giving up on “command and control” and learning to lead by asking the right questions and giving people a voice. While this requires more transparency than some traditional companies are used to, it’s empowering for everyone on the team. Everyone – regardless of generation – wants to feel like their work is worthwhile. What’s more worthwhile than being a part of the top initiatives of your company?
SB: Yes, as I often say, the new job of leadership is creating a context for others to find their way. A great conversation, Avinoam. Thanks for your time.
AN: Thank you! It was a pleasure.