The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500

Posted by Gary Hamel on March 24, 2009

The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” – the Facebook Generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of work to reflect the social context of the Web, rather than as is currently the case, a mid-20th-century Weberian bureaucracy.

If your company hopes to attract the most creative and energetic members of Gen F, it will need to understand these Internet-derived expectations, and then reinvent its management practices accordingly. Sure, it’s a buyer’s market for talent right now, but that won’t always be the case—and in the future, any company that lacks a vital core of Gen F employees will soon find itself stuck in the mud.

With that in mind, I compiled a list of 12 work-relevant characteristics of online life. These are the post-bureaucratic realities that tomorrow’s employees will use as yardsticks in determining whether your company is “with it” or “past it.” In assembling this short list, I haven’t tried to catalog every salient feature of the Web’s social milieu, only those that are most at odds with the legacy practices found in large companies.

1. All ideas compete on an equal footing.
On the Web, every idea has the chance to gain a following—or not, and no one has the power to kill off a subversive idea or squelch an embarrassing debate. Ideas gain traction based on their perceived merits, rather than on the political power of their sponsors.

2. Contribution counts for more than credentials.
When you post a video to YouTube, no one asks you if you went to film school. When you write a blog, no one cares whether you have a journalism degree. Position, title, and academic degrees—none of the usual status differentiators carry much weight online. On the Web, what counts is not your resume, but what you can contribute.

3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed.
In any Web forum there are some individuals who command more respect and attention than others—and have more influence as a consequence. Critically, though, these individuals haven’t been appointed by some superior authority. Instead, their clout reflects the freely given approbation of their peers. On the Web, authority trickles up, not down.

4. Leaders serve rather than preside.
On the Web, every leader is a servant leader; no one has the power to command or sanction. Credible arguments, demonstrated expertise and selfless behavior are the only levers for getting things done through other people. Forget this online, and your followers will soon abandon you.

5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned.
The Web is an opt-in economy. Whether contributing to a blog, working on an open source project, or sharing advice in a forum, people choose to work on the things that interest them. Everyone is an independent contractor, and everyone scratches their own itch.

6. Groups are self-defining and -organizing.
On the Web, you get to choose your compatriots. In any online community, you have the freedom to link up with some individuals and ignore the rest, to share deeply with some folks and not at all with others. Just as no one can assign you a boring task, no can force you to work with dim-witted colleagues.

7. Resources get attracted, not allocated.
In large organizations, resources get allocated top-down, in a politicized, Soviet-style budget wrangle. On the Web, human effort flows towards ideas and projects that are attractive (and fun), and away from those that aren’t. In this sense, the Web is a market economy where millions of individuals get to decide, moment by moment, how to spend the precious currency of their time and attention.

8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it.
The Web is also a gift economy. To gain influence and status, you have to give away your expertise and content. And you must do it quickly; if you don’t, someone else will beat you to the punch—and garner the credit that might have been yours. Online, there are a lot of incentives to share, and few incentives to hoard.

9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed.
On the Internet, truly smart ideas rapidly gain a following no matter how disruptive they may be. The Web is a near-perfect medium for aggregating the wisdom of the crowd—whether in formally organized opinion markets or in casual discussion groups. And once aggregated, the voice of the masses can be used as a battering ram to challenge the entrenched interests of institutions in the offline world.

10. Users can veto most policy decisions.
As many Internet moguls have learned to their sorrow, online users are opinionated and vociferous—and will quickly attack any decision or policy change that seems contrary to the community’s interests. The only way to keep users loyal is to give them a substantial say in key decisions. You may have built the community, but the users really own it.

11. Intrinsic rewards matter most.
The web is a testament to the power of intrinsic rewards. Think of all the articles contributed to Wikipedia, all the open source software created, all the advice freely given—add up the hours of volunteer time and it’s obvious that human beings will give generously of themselves when they’re given the chance to contribute to something they actually care about. Money’s great, but so is recognition and the joy of accomplishment.

12. Hackers are heroes.
Large organizations tend to make life uncomfortable for activists and rabble-rousers—however constructive they may be. In contrast, online communities frequently embrace those with strong anti-authoritarian views. On the Web, muckraking malcontents are frequently celebrated as champions of the Internet’s democratic values—particularly if they’ve managed to hack a piece of code that has been interfering with what others regard as their inalienable digital rights.

These features of Web-based life are written into the social DNA of Generation F—and mostly missing from the managerial DNA of the average Fortune 500 company. Yeah, there are a lot of kids looking for jobs right now, but few of them will ever feel at home in cubicleland.

So, readers, here’s a couple of questions: What are the Web-based social values that you think are most contrary to the managerial DNA one finds inside a typical corporate giant? And how should we reinvent management to make it more consistent with these emerging online sensibilities?



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Some of Your Ideas Are Idiotic

...and this comes from an idealistic 23-year-old. Thing is, despite my idealism, I can be a realist, too.

"Nobody can force you to do something boring or work with someone stupid" jumped right out at me as a completely unrealistic expectation to have or allow in the business world. You forget: people my age, it is true, are often allowed in "online communities" to not have to work with people we don't like or do anything we don't find interesting, satisfying, or fulfilling... key word, "communities"... NOT COMPANIES! You forget (or possibly just neglect to realize) these expectations apply to areas of life when people are effectively volunteering their time "because they feel like it". In other words, as a hobby!

Telling managers they should adapt to and capitulate the unrealistic demand that "20-somethings should never have to work with someone they don't like, or do something boring to them" is probably managerial suicide, at least when you realize that it's impossible for 100% of people to agree or like each other 100% of them, and when you consider that there will ALWAYS be some task or other that everyone will consider "boring" or "uninteresting", but which is utterly necessary. Allowing people to slack off or refuse to work with certain people, is ridiculous. It's allowing them to engage in narcissistic, self-serving behavior... and here's a tip, from the psychologists who research narcissism: narcissists make the LEAST effective employees! The best employees are humble, because they are also hardworking and not nearly as selfish. They also cause less strife in the office, because they get on fewer people's nerves.

Here's the REAL tip for managers wanting to hire "Millenials", aka Gen Y: give every applicant a personality questionnaire that includes the NPI (Narcissistic Personality Index). If they score well below the average of 15, but still seem friendly and open? Hire them NOW. If they score significantly higher than average... don't hire them. Considering the number of narcissists in my generation, this will much more quickly cut it down to the really viable, effective candidates. And both you AND they will be better off!

Oh, and by the way, it is untrue that "contribution trumps credentials". It is true that credentials alone aren't enough... but there's a big difference from things like opinion-blogging and filmmaking (largely arts, rather than things requiring a large knowledge base), and say, law. It is true that achievement means more than a degree nowadays, and likewise, that some skills (like video editing) can easily be picked up by trial-and-error nowadays. However, this does not mean that people my age do not respect those with "credentials". After all, we still demand that our lawyers have passed the State Bar, do we not? And for good reason: there are certain things (law is one of them) which are only truly easy to understand once you've spent a great deal of time studying them in-depth with people who themselves have spent a lifetime studying them in-depth. It's important to realize that people do not require contribution MORE than credentials; we simply feel that both are equally important on the whole. And really, if you look at the way academia and the sciences have always worked in the 20th century, this absolutely no different - you don't just get a degree and rest on your laurels, you get a degree and then devote your time to moving your field forward.

One thing I couldn't help but notice was absent though is the lack of awareness for my generation's interpretation of the "all men are created equal" concept. What, no mention of equality between the sexes?

Perhaps I'm cynical, but I find it curious that in another article on this same website, women are advised that they cannot wear "no makeup" to work, because "18% of directors [think it means the woman doesn't care]". This despite the fact that the women most likely to wear makeup are actually not apathetic, so much as vain and narcissistic, never a good recipe for a useful and successful employee! Perhaps managers should focus more on personality than on appeasement OR appearance, as that is actually the single biggest predictor of long-term success and usefulness in an employee.

Food for thought.

(PS: I do agree though that critics and whistleblowers shouldn't be treated as badly as they have been in the past, though. Corruption can run rampant in any group - including and especially companies - when there is no room for checks on individuals' behavior)


What are the Web-based social values contrary to the managerial DNA one finds inside a typical corporate giant?

- Trust

- Openness

How should we reinvent management to make it more consistant with these emerging online sensibilies?

-Enable prototypes within the corporation where the two points above can be tested and lived on

- stay connected with people who left you, they will enable large corporations (and the smaller ones as well) to connect more smoothly to the changes

- open up the way people (employees and employers) are measured and paid

...more is not necessary, the rest will follow as soon as you change the settings and the rules;-)