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We or Me? Designing for Millennials in the digital age

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 4, 2013
When considering the social-izing of the enterprise, have we done enough to understand what motivates Millennials? Taking research from Dr Jean Twenge as the basis, I argue that we need to better understand their world view before developing the nextgen applications.

As I've been wondering about the next generation enterprise, I started digging around for research on the cohort that forms the next emerging generation of executives/managers. I was particularly struck by research undertaken by Dr. Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and colleagues.

I'll say right off the bat that I don't agree with everything Dr. Twenge says because much of her work centers solely upon cultures in the US. Even so, I have sympathy with her founding thesis that Millennials are a much more narcissistic, self-interested group. I also see that generation displaying a strong sense of entitlement. In an Atlantic article from 2012, Dr. Twenge says:

Those who have done in-depth studies of today's young people, such as Christian Smith in Lost in Transition, have come to a similar conclusion. "The idea that today's emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction," Smith wrote. "The fact that anyone ever believed that idea simply tells us how flimsy the empirical evidence that so many journalistic media stories are based upon is and how unaccountable to empirical reality high-profile journalism can be." (p. 224)

The evidence to support these statements is powerful:

The survey data we analyzed captured what Millennials said about themselves, not what I or any other GenXer or Boomer says about them. If we're going to understand our culture and how it's changed, we need to listen to what young people say.

This is fascinating because so much of what I have heard from those looking at the next generation and changes they believe will come in the future stems from a very different standpoint. It is one that says Millennials want a work environment that uses tools and technology reflecting their claimed highly social-ized Facebook driven private lives. That in turn gets conflated to mean this generation are, in some way, naturally more 'social' in the way they behave. That doesn't make sense when viewed through the lens of Dr. Twenge's research.

If anything, I would argue that the self interest element reinforces the notion that Millennials moving into management will more likely do whatever it takes to climb the greasy pole. That in turn suggests at least superficial conformity to the hierarchies of the past. Paradoxically I frequently see examples where Millennials behave as though they don't need to put in the effort needed to gain experience before getting the rewards.

I saw an example recently where a young person was offered what many would consider the opportunity of a lifetime but turned it down as it required some travel. The person recounting this tale then reflected on their own experience as a person of a similar age. They had to travel whether they liked it or not in order to pursue the profession for which they were training. It comes as no surprise that the person recounting the story was left head scratching.

When thought of in that context, is it any surprise that the social-ized Enterprise 2.0 or social business has largely been a failure? The evidence has not been gathered to support that view but it makes common sense.

If your world view is one where you believe you are entitled and operate out of a self-interested mindset, then why would you use the kinds of collaborative tools that many have promoted unless there was a clear and obvious 'what's in it for me' element? Promises are not enough - the rewards have to be visible. And so far, they've not just been nebulous, they've been very difficult to articulate in ways that appeal to the Millennial psyche.

What's the answer?

Our occasional correspondent Sameer Patel believes we are in a phase where the inclusion of social-izing tools inside business process is an intermediary step. It fulfills the answer to a problem with social-izing software I posed some five years ago: content without context in process is meaningless. Patel goes on to argue for network centric approaches in the future. He sets up the argument with examples like LinkedIn, Facebook, Yelp and Ariba and then offers :

The network is the nucleus and it can outlast any sticky feature or function you can think of. That’s a fundamentally different value framework for businesses.

I sense his choice of examples is (mostly) poor. For example, there is evidence that college types are abandoning Facebook. Even if you put that aside, can Facebook's modus operandi that trades privacy for a digital college reunion campus survive as a metaphor for future engagement? I'm far from sure.

LinkedIn has become the replacement for HR research. Despite that utility, I dislike the clunky interface and dislike even more the steady erosion of confidence in its confidentiality via the infusion of spam. To me, Ariba provides a much better context, largely because the scope for imaginative reinvention of indirect procurement processes is enormous. Beyond that, I see the emerging development platforms that rely on network effects like as much more interesting.

Where do the Millennials fit in? Very well. Continuing with the 'entitlement' theme, I believe that where the social component is embedded inside processes then going forward, it simply represents an additional piece of functionality the people will readily learn. Good design dictates that those inclusions take the best of what Facebook offers but with an enterprise twist.

The open question for me is whether techniques like gamification can be used as a way of solving the 'instant gratification' problem that is so typical of the Millennials psyche in a trade for shared knowledge.

As always, we can only glimpse the future through a fog of uncertainty. But with that in mind, I believe we ignore Dr Twenge's findings at our peril.  Instead of worrying about adoption or forecasting a nirvana of natural collaboration, we need to take far more notice of how Millennials are reporting their behavior. Only then can developers  step confidently into the next phase of social-ized applications.

Post image via Firebelly Marketing, featured image via Slippery Rock University

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