HR Technology Column Are the Real Five Generations in the Workplace?

After years of focusing on millennials, HR faces new and broader challenges around technology adoption in the workplace. And the best way to meet those challenges is to stop thinking about how old employees are, but rather how digitally proficient they might be.

Monday, December 7, 2015
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Sometimes things actually do change for the better, at least for a while.

Remember about eight years ago when every HR conference had to include a keynote on how to manage millennials?

I derived some shamefully manipulative tactics from those presentations, but happily had no employees to practice them on. Those talks have disappeared. Now we hear that we all basically want the same things out of work: autonomy, some sense of purpose and, especially, a decent boss.

Then we heard a lot about "digital immigrants" and "digital natives," a binary distinction between people who remember getting their first computer and those who never experienced life without one. My favorite story of a native is the 5-year-old who is already expert on the iPad and is handed a print magazine. When the youngster tries to swipe the cover and doesn't get to the next page, he or she decides it's broken.

I was pretty impressed with that distinction when I first heard it from Jason Averbook, now CEO of TMBC. A little less so when I discovered he hadn't thought it up himself. But it was a useful, though not fine-grained, distinction at the time. At least it gave me an identity, as well as the vision of myself getting off the boat at a digital Ellis Island.

Now, in what feels like an expanded millennial replay, we are hearing everywhere about the age ranges of the five generations in the workforce (yes, a new one slipped in recently), and their differing attitudes and expectations. Fair enough. There are still important distinctions amongst us.

But how useful is that to HR, or to line managers, trying to tame the beast of the digital transformation going on in just about every company right now? One of HR's favorite phrases, "change management," does not begin to cover the enormous challenges we're all experiencing from the disruptions of new technologies that are transforming how we live and work.

Happily, Constellation Research Vice President Alan Lepofsky has figured out a better way. He created a new framework to segment workers (and others) by their levels of digital proficiency, rather than by age.

Being an industry analyst, Alan's work is naturally best understood in an exquisitely detailed and paid report (but with a very useful free page) sold by Constellation. And it's also been popularized by his colleague and collaborator, Constellation CEO Ray Wang, in his best-selling new book, Disrupting Digital Business: Create an Authentic Experience in the Peer-to-Peer Economy.

Ray also gives a considerably shorter explanation of the new five generations as a guest on Firing Line with Bill Kutik®. And you can catch him on many other topics in the replay of Workday's annual TV show Predict & Prepare 2016, which I recently moderated for the seventh year.

Would you be shocked to discover Alan's analysis has been expressed in a quadrant? The X-axis is digital knowledge increasing to the right; the Y-axis is digital comfort increasing going up.

Surprising at first glance, he puts the old categories of "digital immigrant" and "digital natives" at the top level of comfort, with the natives obviously to the right, having greater knowledge.

On Firing Line, Ray talks about digital immigrants ("like us") straddling old and new technologies. For instance, we're taking notes at a conference on paper (which I always do, preferably on a printout of the PowerPoint presentation) and then taking a picture of the notes and e-mailing it to ourselves. Oh yeah, Ray, I do that all the time!

The new categories at the bottom of digital comfort are the most telling. In the dreaded lower left corner are the "digital holdouts." They're not good at technology and don't want to be. Simple, straightforward. They'd better get on the bus soon or else look for a carton to live in.

To their right are the most interesting, "digital disengaged." These are folks who are very good at technology -- maybe they were early adopters or even the "power users" who informally helped out everyone else at the office. But now they're sick of it or maybe so concerned that the National Security Agency can intercept every digital communication that they'd rather snail-mail their letters!

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As far as I know, the government still needs to get a regular court order to open your mail at the U.S. Post Office (where the Constitution still lives!), and not just permission from the secret Patriot Act court. So those communications are still secure until the Post Office goes bankrupt.

And finally, an important new category for everyone to understand: "digital voyeurs." They know a good bit about technology, but are not experts. They may be fairly comfortable using it, but would rather watch others doing it and not be the first in line to try the latest new thing.

Alan has come up with a clever set of questions to determine which category people fit into. Without giving too much away, they include:

*           How do you take notes?

*           How do you wish people Happy Birthday?

*           What wakes you up in the morning?

*           What's your preferred method of payment?

His multiple-choice answers are quite amusing and telling.

Obviously this is the Classic Comics or Cliff Notes version of his report. Now those are two cultural references properly classified by age. But not the people in your office! Instead, consider everyone's digital proficiency, at least until they're all replaced by robots, who are definitely digital natives!

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 19th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Expo, back at Chicago's McCormick Place, Oct. 4-7, 2016. Listen to the archive of The Bill Kutik Radio Show® with 183 of his provocative interviews with HR thought-leaders. Watch the 11th episode of his video series, Firing Line with Bill Kutik® with an HR systems executive who in one leap went from a Tesseract mainframe HRMS to a new Cloud Core HR system with payroll! 

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