Members of the millennial generation (Gen Y — those born around 1980 and later) are entering the knowledge management workforce. They are comfortable using social media and other communications technologies. They bring into the workplace behaviours, norms and values that often appear at odds with expectations and practices in traditional organizations.  Social media enables — even demands — new ways of knowledge work — but the resulting tensions create challenges for executives.

Challenge 1:  The Talent Life Cycle

Young knowledge workers entering the workplace bring with them a new dimension of dynamics: they demand personal development through challenging tasks, job flexibility that is higher than what baby boomers would have preferred (and have accepted), participation in development towards objectives that matter to them, and flexibility in connecting and developing their own networks. Such preferences pose challenges to organizations.

In the eyes of the executives, creative knowledge workers determine the competitive advantage of the firm and represent the capabilities for continued learning. The executives recognize that knowledge and learning are not simply an individual capability but one that is manifest through work teams and the organization as a whole.

New Motivations and Values

Young people who grew up with mobile phones and computers exhibit different values and beliefs than their predecessors. They do not adapt easily to the industrial ways of working, hierarchical organizations, and bureaucratic decision-making modes that have been accepted by baby boomers. This generation is about making a difference, meeting a challenge, and always progressing in their capabilities. These drivers, more than job stability and routine, motivate this generation of workers.

They frequently assume personal responsibility to make the best out of every job. They expect professional development of their skills and are not satisfied with remaining in the same position for long. Therefore, “career paths” for knowledge workers are more dynamic and less predictable than they once were. The job stability preferred by the baby boomers is slowly being replaced by a desire for vigorous professional development.

Solution:  Re-think the Management of Knowledge Workers

Search for challenging projects. For digital natives, having fun while working and being a part of what ‘changes the world’ plays a crucial role in the work they do. Therefore, many firms have opened the social network sites for employees. If employees work during their “non-working” hours, they can do private networking during their workday. Many firms already provide opportunities for flexible working environment (people can work from anywhere they want); home office opportunities (this is especially crucial for women with children); and interesting jobs that bring self-realization and self-satisfaction. Such firms are sure that challenging projects in which employees can develop their own ideas and be creative provide more incentives to the digital natives than a higher salary.

Opportunities for development rather than promotion. People like to succeed, and the millennials are no exception. They demand more personal responsibility for what they do, but they want to be rewarded for their contributions and performance. Therefore, progressive companies encourage employees’ learning and development as well as provide alternative reward paths. They organize seminars and conferences where employees can share their success stories and give advice to those who is still looking for new opportunities.

More personal responsibility. Several firms long ago began building the relationships with their workers on results orientation and trust rather than on directing and controlling time spent in the office. These firms trust the workers to be capable and do the work needed in the time framework required. To accomplish this, they ensure a dense communication pattern: they discuss with the employees what they expect and communicate the realistic goals to which they have agreed.

Solution:  Resolving the Issue of Short Tenure 

Executives recognize the mobility and increased dynamism of the human resource. As long-life employment becomes rare, fewer young employees stay at the same work place for several years. They become nomadic workers not only in terms of work space flexibility and work from anywhere, but they desire flexibility in where they choose to work.

Millennials feel they easily could move from company to company; there seems to be little stress associated with losing one’s job.

Approach: Create and invest in alumni networks. What firms need to do is accept when employees choose to leave, recognize their valued service, but engage them in alumni networks so they remain connected. They have to keep track of what their former employees do and where they work: invite them to the annual Christmas dinners and keep them in their network of knowledge assets. This not only widens the company’s network but gives young people the chance to come back to the firm when the good opportunity arises. This approach serves as a powerful resource for identifying new talent and maintaining an engaged network as a source of new ideas and learning.

Challenge 2:  Core Resources — they are not just inside the organization

It now becomes increasingly clear that firms acknowledge the importance of the networks and develop ways of building trust in them. The networks are about interactions that maintain the ties between individuals, but they also are about getting access to new knowledge and information embedded in these networks.

The use of social media has made it possible for professionals around the globe to get advice from their colleagues and share experiences with a mouse click. Utilizing the vast amount of resources that are available online available tends to make access more valued than self-creation. As the technology makes this easier, the focus shifts from simple factual knowledge exchanges to enabling tacit exchanges and collaboration among trusted members of the network.

Question of Control

The cross-boundary nature of the individual networks raises the question of how an organization can control the flow of information in these networks and what should be the role of management in this more open information environment.  If individuals’ loyalties shift away from their employer toward their personal networks, how should executives approach this new environment? Although many organizations express concern over the risk of potential loss of proprietary knowledge, others express optimism that the benefits outweigh the risks.

The key seems to be an organizational agility to embrace openness and the opportunities for learning through the individual networks. Corporations have used similar approaches before to building strategic partnerships between and among firms with whom they could cooperate.  The difference now is that the networks are individual and potentially more collaborative.

Challenge 3:  A New Communication Network Ecology

The emphasis on the use of social media for marketing and HR purposes is diminishing as firms recognize the limitations of treating social media like other marketing channels. The more community-based communication and collective actions permitted by collaboration platforms and shared workspaces has made a dramatic shift from physical meetings to virtual working environment where project and human resource management, technical support, training and networking are done from anywhere.

The variety of communication channels (SMS, Twitter, email, phone, video-conference, shared workspace etc.) also increases and blurs boundaries between customers and employees, business and private.

The capabilities for virtual collaboration are enhanced with the wider range of opportunities for shared storage and even processing capacity in “the cloud,” enabling greater organizational agility for knowledge work across boundaries.

Solution:  Getting Engaged

The more possibilities the firms provide to the employees to stay connected, the greater access they will have for new knowledge and ideas. Collaboration platforms, shared data storage, wikis, blogs, and forums — both inside and outside the firm — enlarge the range of resources available to the firm and leverage existing investments. The emerging network environment does preclude the loss of control but does require executives to rethink the means by which risk is managed. Only by remaining engaged with the emerging information ecology can firms maintain an awareness of the expanded opportunities for learning and creating value. Managing risks through limited experimentation and bounded engagement with the wider networks will be a better choice than staying on the sidelines. Engagement is a better choice than the certain risk of being left behind by the competition.