We hear a great deal about millennials. Certainly by this time almost everyone is familiar with the term.
But just in case this is a new one for some readers, there are some definitions. The Pew Research Center (part of Pew Charitable Trusts and the organization that appears to have taken the lead in studying millennials as a specific demographic) describes the group as people whose ages run from about 18 to 34. And that “about” is the key word in their definition, for the Pew Research Center states that “No chronological end point has been set for this group,” noting that this is how the term was being defined in 2015. So we have to recognize that characteristics of what we’re now calling “millennials” will certainly show up in people older than 34 and even in some younger than 18. I suppose it just depends on what questions you’re asking and the responses you hear.
Another source, Urban Dictionary (a dictionary “with definitions written by everyone”) describes millennials in an unusual way, noting that the term includes two groups of people, with technology characterized as the “difference” between the two groups. Millennials born between 1981 and 1991 grew up on personal computers, cell phones, and video game systems; millennials born between 1991 and 2001 grew up on tablets, smartphones, and apps. Yet there is common ground between them: “both have been transforming and altering communication and identity, not just in the United States but globally.”
So as a first thought with respect to the assertion I make in the title of this post — as to whether millennials are qualified to take on the role of knowledge strategist in an organization — it’s important to recognize that millennials are comfortable with information, knowledge, and strategic learning content that incorporates all formats. These people are society’s digital natives, and since an important part of our thinking about knowledge services and how we deal with knowledge sharing has to do with the need for organizing and codifying information, knowledge, and learning, they are qualified to come to our rescue. As we attempt to deal with the enormous quantify of content that has proliferated since the end (and even during) World War II, all societies have been struggling to figure out how to deal with the content we’re confronted with (sometimes the term “overwhelmed” comes up, particularly in the last twenty or so years as we’ve attempted to deal with “big data”). And as anyone who knows me has heard me say, in using the principles and concepts of knowledge services — now that we have the advantages of technology management to support knowledge services — we are able to meet that challenge.
That said, I have a few observations to support my optimism about the role of millennials in the knowledge domain. And specifically I support their ability to understand and respond to the organizational need for knowledge sharing. As the organization seeks to develop and implement an enterprise-wide knowledge strategy, enabling the company or organization to function as a knowledge culture, the millennials are the people to do the work. And they are skilled to do it at all levels of employment, but particularly so as they move into positions giving them the opportunity and the authority to exercise their management and leadership talents..
Supporting my assertion, millennials possess specific attributes that strengthen their potential as knowledge strategists. This group of attributes was identified by Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO at Gallup, who identified these in “Millennials: How They Live and Work,” a Gallup Report (May, 2016). For each I’ve provided my own connection between the attribute and knowledge services:
- Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck — they want a purpose. Many of us working with knowledge services speak about the desire of knowledge workers to have meaning, and the knowledge strategist — as the organization’s knowledge thought leader — moves into a role as what I like to call the “go-to knowledge influencer.” Using their social media skills, their expertise with networking, and their confidence that it’s OK to do something differently than it’s been done before, millennials find a way to work with others in the organization. And by introducing these colleagues to knowledge services principles and by helping them establish knowledge value in the larger organization, millennials are enabled to find meaning in their work, to find purpose. And to use their influence to enhance knowledge sharing.
- Millennials are not pursuing job satisfaction — they are pursuing development. Of course this group of workers — especially as they move forward as managers and leaders — want the acknowledgement of “a job well done.” They also want to contribute to enterprise success, in particular as the organization comes closer to realizing the achievement of the organizational mission. They take great pride in bringing their own generation’s thinking to challenges that, while perhaps successful in the past, can build on their slightly different way of thinking about what the organization wants to achieve. Along the way, millennials take pride in what they’re learning, in how they are developing, and indeed whether they stay with that particular organization or not (and as millennials, they likely will not stay with the organization for their entire careers), they are aware that they are developing (as we say with knowledge services) an “approach” to knowledge sharing that will benefit any employer and, at the same time, enhance their own professional abilities.
- Millennials don’t want bosses – they want coaches. Not surprising to anyone who knows me, I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Clifton. Those of us who have grown beyond the years of the millennial generation are extremely lucky in a very specific way: in almost all cases (notwithstanding some occasional and dramatic demonstrations of lack of interest), millennials make it clear that they like to hear from us. They like learning how we moved from an old-fashioned and hide-bound lack of knowledge sharing to our new and even sometimes exciting enthusiasm about how technology enables us to codify and share information, knowledge, and strategic learning. The “information-is-power” idea and the gate-keeper role of a certain type of earlier information specialist is now long gone and we and the millennials alike understand the benefits of our continually improving knowledge-sharing framework.
- Millennials don’t want annual reviews — they want ongoing conversations. It’s still a little early to do away with long-standing management methodologies (such as performance reviews) but it becomes clearer all the time that millennials — while being very skilled about working alone — much prefer conversations about tasks and their supervisors’ expectations about those tasks. They like “big-picture” assignments, and they quickly respond to one of the oldest (but often ignored) management directions for supervisors (“find the best people”-“tell them what to do”-“let them do it”). If they are indeed having ongoing conversations with the people to whom they directly report, and if coaching, mentoring, and conversation are undertaken from both sides of the desk, millennials can be expected to do better work.
- Millennials don’t want to fix their weaknesses — they want to develop their strengths. Most of the time, millennials do not spend a great deal of energy and effort identifying and analyzing their strengths (and attempting to fix opposite characteristics) but they are aware of them. If in the workplace they are given the opportunity not only to move forward in their careers but to take something “away” from their work, their later career success is assured. In The Definitive Drucker, Elizabeth Edersheim notes that Peter Drucker often said that “Every knowledge organization is a learning and teaching institution. Knowledge can’t be taught but it can be learned.” Edersheim builds on that: “The best learning comes from a combination of experience, hands-on training, and mentoring, with explicit feedback loops. Development is still primarily experiential or ‘on the job,’ involving a series of progressively more challenging assignments, a structured rotation through various departments, organization units, and geographies, or even a series of apprenticeships. Ideally, these are positions of substantial responsibility integrated into the day-to-day operation of the business, not separate programs.” When managers think about how they can get the best performance from millennials, they do themselves (and the enterprise) a great benefit by thinking about how millennials can be challenged as Drucker and Edersheim advise.
- It’s not just my job — it’s my life. A summary, no less, of what Jim Clifton and many, many others who think about the role of the millennials in the workplace have concluded (myself included). We truly are living in a new management scenario, and while many of us have come to understand — for many of the right reasons — that our established strategic frameworks of earlier times continue to be effective, our most important challenge is to hear and try to understand how newer thinking affects enterprise success. And allowing the millennials to embark on moving into new management and leadership structures doesn’t do harm, not if we recognize that much of what came before continues to be valid. We do not throw out what came before. We stay aware of it and re-consider what it does for us, as enterprise leaders. Indeed, while some of today’s generation of senior managers disparage earlier management leaders like Drucker and others of his ilk by referring to them as “old-fashioned,” the millennials — if they have been exposed to those earlier principles — do not automatically think “old-fashioned.” They think “classic.” That fits in perfectly with where they want to go with their careers.