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Saturday 4 April 2015

Gen-Y businesses

Consider a company established by Gen-Y founders who have hired staff mostly younger than themselves -- selling heavily to Gen-Y customers: it makes for an interesting client when you are a paunchy and greying middle-aged consultant. With the curious feeling that I had stepped into a mirror universe, or a not-quite-done-right simulation of reality, I also felt a lot like the boss character from Atlassian's latest Hipchat videos only without the ability to summon my version of normality into existence.

In a week on-site, I think I saw two desk phones. One sat idle at reception, officially shared between three staff; the other was half-buried under a pile of cables in the customer support area. I presume they were both still functional, but I never heard them ring.

I noticed the buried phone while I was in their customer contact centre. I started asking about the way they handle logging of tickets from customers, and how there were some techniques to ease the time pressure to get things in place and dispatched while on the phone. (Yes, I still think that the technology behind Queckt deserves another chance.)

The manager looked at me a little confused and explained that that less than 0.001% of their customers call via telephone in a given week. It has to be a total emergency before a customer reverts to calling human-to-human. Their customer contact centre receives two to three calls per week. Presumably Gen-Y customers are so used to the idea that a call centre will be staffed either by a robot automaton or offshore resources that it simply never occurs to Gen-Y customers that there would be anything gained by a phone call.

You might therefore expect that mobile-to-mobile calls or SMS were common communication methods. Nope, I didn't notice this happening either. At a guess, there is an unwritten rule of etiquette that says that sending a message to someone's mobile is to direct a message to them personally, and would be inappropriate for work-related information.

It was text-chat everywhere,  in hundreds of topic-based chat-rooms which are kept forever for their historical record. There were some private chat messages to individuals to follow up on some minor point, but mostly it was text chat messages in rooms even when addressed to an individual. This led to surprisingly few repeats of information, and a weird multi-threaded conversation that spread across time and across people: "I scrolled back to find what she said..." and "Searched history: last month we were ..."

This led to a near-complete absence of email. I have never received so few emails on a project before. Email is predominantly used to send calendar invitations, which doesn't happen much because sit-down meetings are less common and only for more serious matters. Every meeting I was in this week had someone (sometimes several) taking copious notes on a laptop, because if everyone had taken a big chunk of time off from their work together to gather in a particular place, this was obviously an Important Event Which Had To Be Documented.

Pulling out my smartpen to record a session and write with ink on audio-linked notes gathered the same responses as a cute piece of steampunk technology in a cosplay would have. In most of my other clients, I'll have a manager or two itching to find out where to get them the moment I turn it on. Here: a polite nod of acknowledgement.

I think there were five factors driving the importance and annotation of sit-down meetings.

  • My bias. If I was present, it was a meeting with an expensive outside consultant, so no surprises there that it would be taken more seriously.
  • The idea of taking notes on a laptop is something that many Gen-Y folks have been doing since high school, so it carries through to the workplace.
  • Gen-Y workers have grown up with their whole lives documented and recorded. Every birthday, grand final and graduation was captured at least on camera, and possibly on video. Baby boomers relying on memory alone for important events presumably seems like a bizarre collective amnesia to Gen-Y. To some extent, an unrecorded meeting might not quite feel real.
  • Ritualised, informal and short stand-up meetings were fairly wide-spread. There is a reason that Agile-methodology stand-up meetings get used -- they can be very effective.
  • Debate and consensus forming were done on-line -- very, very effectively.
Let me explain the significance of that last point. Management theorists have studied the process of reaching consensus in an organisation. There are hierarchic autocracies where decisions come from on high and the lower down in the chain you are, the less one's contribution can take effect. It leads to a deeply disenchanted workforce (as witnessed at IBM at the moment) but can mobilise resources at vast scale. There are democratic processes. There are "consultative change" processes where thoughts and feedback are gathered by specialist consultants to be assembled as an integrated whole. There are ad-hoc mechanisms such as email flamewars between middle managers until someone gives in.

Ultimately, such processes often reflect the organisations' origins or the fad of the day when the culture was created -- military, professional, creative and so on.

Gen-Y staff are used to discussions on web forums. They are used to wikis. It seems perfectly natural to put up a proposed strategy on a wiki page, and let the entire organisation debate on it. Those that care deeply about the issue will put up their arguments, and if the debate gets too intense, those that care less about it will slowly drop off by de-subscribing to notifications on the page. It's civil and yet nevertheless gets issues aired. 

Consensus may not be formed, so there is still a role for management, but for every decision, the "why did we do choose that path?" is ever so clearly documented.

In contrast, a typical Gen-Y employee with that sort of background might look at a sharepoint site where the content and comments are set up to be separate and think of it like an overhead projector for displaying transparencies -- something that clearly has a place and serves a definite purpose, but for which that place or purpose belongs in a museum or second-hand shop rather than being a useful part of day-to-day existence. 

Shared drives are a real curiosity where a sysadmin who had experience in setting them up on dedicated hardware gets rewarded in praise for their breadth of knowledge.

Overall, the most striking factor coming out of the use of wikis and group text-chat instead of shared-drives and private emails was the deep and pervasive honesty about everything. It's hard to obfuscate or hide when any commentator might make a reference to that dark secret you don't want to let out. Want to know which teams are making their targets and which are not? It's not hard to find out.

Lest I seem too positive, there are down-sides to youthful remastering. Lack of perspective and experience in a young company is normal, but it is still amusing to hear a senior manager explaining that keeping Fortune 500 customers happy is a really good idea and why large enterprises can be a good source of steady income and growth. Also I worry (probably unnecessarily so) about implicit sexism and ageism when the vast majority of staff have not yet started a family.

Business continuity is a mixed bag. There are only weak dependencies on particular sites -- if a building becomes unavailable, it would only be an inconvenience. Teams would re-form via text chat groups fairly fluidly. There probably isn't any crucial data living in a file server that would need to be restored in a hurry. Accounting and other functions are all in the cloud and therefore somewhat insulated from any local disasters. But that very fluidity that makes recovery so natural means that it would be very hard to tell what unexpected consequences there might be.

I'm painting with a broad brush -- not everyone is young, there are still emails being sent (occasionally), phones would be ringing somewhere, there are bound to be many unimportant meetings, and even some important meetings being left completely unrecorded, and sadly, there are probably lies being told as well. So it's not universal or absolute, but the approach to and adoption of technology does drive culture in a certain direction.

It's certainly been one of the most interesting clients I've worked with. I can't help shaking the feeling: if I found working in a predominantly Gen-Y company noticeably different, what are Gen-Y workers experiencing when they work for companies that are predominantly baby-boomer or Gen-X? And am I seeing an amusing niche event that has just happened for this time and this place or have I been seeing the future of work for everyone?

Greg Baker ( a consultant, author, developer and start-up advisor. His recent projects include aplug-in for Jira Service Desk which lets helpdesk staff tell their users how long a task will take and a wet-weather information system for school sports.

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