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From Ladder to Lattice

An expert on Generation Y looks at the way lattice organizations link with younger workers and the entrepreneurial shift in corporate America.

This article accompanies Lattice vs. Ladder

Monday, November 1, 2010
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The days of driving to the same office building, sitting in the same cubicle and working your way up the same corporate ladder are long gone. The new workplace -- Generation Y's workplace -- is defined by rapid innovation, constant change and, most importantly, entrepreneurship.

According to the Wall Street Journal, half of all recent college graduates believe that self-employment is more secure than a full-time job. Think about that for a minute. Self-employment is more secure than a full-time job. This one simple idea is at the heart of a monumental shift in the collective psyche of corporate America, and it's a shift that's being led by today's young professionals.

Downsizings, layoffs, slashed pensions and the imminent threat to the future of Social Security are just a few indicators that relying on a corporation to protect you is about as smart as turning down your holiday bonus this year. (Do they even have those anymore?)

When self-employment is more secure than a full-time job, the old paradigms of specialization, corporate loyalty and even retirement may as well be thrown out the window. Instead, today's young professionals are laser-focused on entrepreneurial paradigms such as perpetual learning, constant networking and always remaining relevant. In short, we're all free agents now.

Look no further than The Social Network -- the recently released movie about the founding of Facebook and its socially awkward, but ruthlessly visionary 26 year-old founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to see this new free agent outlook in full effect.

"When you talk to people afterward, it was as if they were seeing two different films," says Scott Rudin, one of the producers. "The older audiences see Zuckerberg as a tragic figure who comes out of the film with less of himself than when he went in, while young people see him as completely enhanced, a rock star, who did what he needed to do to protect the thing that he had created."

The New York Times calls Zuckerberg "the boy-king of America's new capitalism," a fitting title for the world's youngest billionaire. For Generation Y, the new reality is that a nerdy kid with an idea, some business savvy and a computer can be a billionaire if he's lucky -- and at least a millionaire if he's not.

Of course, not many people are going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Most of today's young professionals are not trying to start a venture-backed company and take it from idea to IPO, but the basic core values that define entrepreneurship -- the values that Zuckerberg embodies -- are alive and well, and they are at the heart of how today's young professionals view their careers.

My company has seen these values play out first-hand on BrazenCareerist.com, as new members of all ages are jumping at the opportunity to build their professional network on our random online speed-networking tool, "Network Roulette."

When 90 percent of jobs are filled through your network, and everyone's a free agent, it truly is about who you know and how networked you are both outside of your organization and outside of your physical location. Today's professionals inherently get it.

While the recession may have caused a brief interruption in this entrepreneurial shift, it is a mere hiccup in the grand scheme of things. Most companies didn't realize this as they allowed innovation in human capital to take a back seat -- while hiring was frozen and employees didn't dare look outside the organization.

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The problem is, most companies are now years behind, and should be terrified that their top young employees are preparing to "take their talents to South Beach," as Lebron James famously did -- or more likely, preparing to join the competing firm down the street that offers higher pay, flexible hours and paid volunteer days. You know -- the firm that didn't forget about the value of people when their employees were too scared to leave.

Some companies are ahead of the curve, though. The best example I've found comes from Deloitte's "Lattice" organizational structure. The lattice doesn't focus on moving up the ladder; rather, people move outward toward different work experiences and different departments where they can learn new skills, make new connections and stay relevant both in the organization and outside of it.

If you think about it, the lattice structure is simply and elegantly creating an entrepreneurial culture within a massive organization. Deloitte has taken notice of the entrepreneurial shift that is happening right now, and they've done something to address it.

Sure, teaching employees new skills and allowing them to set their own career path may result in higher turnover, but the truth is that the average young professional is already switching jobs every 18 months, and the rest of the workplace isn't far behind.

Today's best employees have already shifted to the new entrepreneurial corporate America; the organizations that can shift in stride along with them will be the ones who thrive in the coming years.

Ryan Healy is the chief operating officer and co-founder of BrazenCareerist.com, a leading networking site for young professionals. Since founding Brazen Careerist at 23 years of age in 2007, he has been recognized as one of the country's top human resource thought leaders by WorldatWork and Accenture, and has been featured as a workplace expert for the young workforce, appearing as a spokesperson for the new generation of workers -- Generation Y -- on CBS's 60 Minutes and PBS' Nightly News.

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