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Why Isn't The Future Workforce Leading The Future of Work?

Posted by on January 29, 2013

I’m writing this from the IBM Connect conference in Orlando where one of the big topics of discussion is collaboration and the future of work, both topics I am very passionate about.  What I’m about to say might sound harsh but it’s true and it’s something that IBM and

every other vendor and conference producer needs to hear.  One of the things that I found most ironic at the IBM event is that a bunch of “old” people were talking about the future of work and the future workforce.  It’s ironic because nobody from this future workforce was present at the conference.  Now again, I know that might sound a bit harsh but that doesn’t make it any less true.  How can we be talking about the future of work and the future workforce and how can we be building products for this so called future workforce when they are not present at the events?  It makes no sense.  I hate to say it but the future workforce is in their teens and twenties not in their fifties.

It’s not just IBM, I see this time and time again.  We keep talking about the future and the “future” is not involved in the conversations, in the designs and development of the products, or in any of the discussions around how the future of work is going to change.  Instead we have people who are going to be retiring soon who are leading all of these discussions.  This doesn’t mean that the ideas are bad or that the are wrong, it just means that when this workforce retires we are going to be back to square one!

The simple idea is this, if we want to talk about the future of work and the future worker, then guess what, these people need to be present at the discussions.  Every company I look at it whether it be IBM, SAP, Salesforce, or anyone else; has an “old” person as the face of the future of work and collaboration (or social business or whatever else you want to cal it), and it’s typically a person that has been at the company for many years (sometimes decades!)  Why?  What kind of a future is that?  Where is the twenty something year old who is actually the future workforce?  Sometimes these conferences honestly feel like an older generation of people getting together as a support group letting each other know that everything is going to be “ok.”

It’s just a bit of a mixed message don’t you think?

  • Marie Wallace

    I can assure you there are loads of smart twenty-somethings in IBM and they are strongly influencing the direction that the company is taking. The fact that they are not standing on the stage is just a matter of timing… they haven’t quite worked that high up the corporate ladder. But they are there, vociferous, and pushing the agenda of the Smarter Workforce, both inside and outside the company.

    But I agree it would have been fun to see a load of teens sitting on the stage during the keynote… would have been a blast ;-)

    • jacobmorgan

      Hi Marie,

      Thanks for sharing. Still, why do they need to work their way up the corporate ladder to be standing on the stage? IBM as a company sells software which they hope will flatten organizations yet IBM as a company won’t let the younger generation get on the stage because they have ascended yet? It just doesn’t make too much sense which is why I was a bit skeptical of the IBM vision at the conference. Appreciate the comment!

  • Bryan Ruby

    As someone in IT quickly heading toward my 50′s, I’d like to defend the right of “old people” to have the opportunity and be part of this conversation. You’re absolutely right though, there should be folks from multiple-generations leading and participating in that room that is representative of the present and future workforce. My guess is that there are some older leaders and managers in that room that are uncomfortable being told the’re wrong in describing the future workforce by those that will actually be part of the future workforce. Insecure people don’t invite those that might put them in an awkward position.

    Here is my observation: Too often the focus is solely on the future of work and the changing workforce, but almost no focus on the changes needed by the managers and leaders themselves to manage the new workforce. My day job is with a large organization and for 25 years we have constant discussion on how operations needs to change and the new skills that will be required for our operational workforce of the future. Very rarely do I hear from the managers and leaders themselves discuss how management also needs to change. It’s a lot easier for those old folks to talk about the younger generation than it is for them to talk about themselves. It is easier to talk about organizational behavior and large concepts of changing for the future than it is about changing yourself as an individual or as the roadblock to that change while defending current management practices.

    So why are so many old people in the room? They rather be in the room talking about organizational changes needing to take place due to the younger generation then be in the room where they talk about the need to change themselves, their management style, and the need to abandon their current managerial structure. In my career, I have seen the workforce move from Baby Boomers, to Generation X and finally now being handed off to the Millennials. Yet our management style of most large organizations remains very much ingrained in the Baby Boomer culture or perhaps reflective of even older generations. What’s wrong with this picture?

    • jacobmorgan

      Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for the time to write this and you make some excellent points here. You clearly have an “insider” view of what is happening and why. I think the insecurity you touched on is a very important point and I too see this a bit in some of our consulting clients. As I mentioned in my article about IBM Connect, it felt like a lot of older people getting together in a type of giant support group reassuring each other that everything in the future is going go be just fine. Meanwhile the younger generation about to enter the workforce has never heard of Jive, Yammer, or IBM Connections!

  • Richard Rashty

    I agree with your assessment to a point. I think however, if you can articulate the contrasts and positions of how a digital workplace would have benefited you early on in your career, it does make a compelling story. I prefer to draw from my own experiences within my demographic band, but to bring in stories from other demographic bands both below and above my own in order to show the contrasts.

    Good Post…and I did notice the same thing you did on the conference livestream

    • jacobmorgan

      That’s actually a great idea Richard, that might just have to become an upcoming blog post. When I entered the workforce these tools didn’t exist, but social media was getting more and more popular. So when the enterprise collaboration platforms finally did come around, I knew they would change how we work.

  • Daniel Campbell

    As a twenty something working for a “social collaboration” company I agree 100%. The fact is the most experienced of executives are the least experienced when it comes to relying on these technologies. Presenters talk about collaboration as if it’s a tool and without it an enterprise can’t recruit the best young talent. I fundamentally disagree. The last thing I asked when interviewing was to see the company’s intranet. Collaboration technologies are not tools to us, they are a culture, a culture we depend on so much we don’t even think to ask if we’d have access to them. Would you ask a prospective employer if they have telephones?

    The issue with having “old people” speak is they haven’t completely bought in. They tend to see the future of work as a nice to have. The fact is I was 11 when Google changed what we value in employees. We no longer need people with “the answer” we need people who can find creative solutions quickly and correctly. The most efficient way to ensure quick and correct solutions is by leveraging the entire enterprise in an inspired way. Until “old” people realize “young” people literally don’t know how to work without collaboration they will continue to miss some of the most important messaging when it comes to a social story.

    • jacobmorgan

      Hi Daniel,

      Very well said Daniel, I wish more people in their 20′s would post here as well and share the same perspective you just did, it’s important for everyone to hear. I always think of my 20 year old little brother and can’t imagine him working in many of the enterprises today.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  • Phoebe Shin Venkat

    Not all the answers lie with 20 somethings…it lies with those that are willing to break things and drive change — and face backlash and pushback. It can be found with people at any age…it’s a mindset not a generational thing.

    • jacobmorgan

      Completely agree and it’s not about the 20 something year olds having all the answers. But, if we are talking about the future of work and collaboration and the only people having that conversation are the same ones who were having it years earlier then what’s the point? We need to involve the right people in the conversations to build and plan for the future of work. most people in their 20′s have no idea what Jive, Yammer, or IBM Connections even is; yet these companies are out there building products for this new generation of workers.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Marcus Barber

    Whilst there’s often a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, the reality in futures exercises is that all too often they haven’t filled the bath at all! That means assumptions are not recognised, or go untested, and expectations are made that are unrealistic or void from the outset.

    At some point we’ll shift away from age groups as a valid assessment and understand it is not how old people are, but how they prefer to work that matters. I know lots of ‘oldies’ who are more open to change and new ideas than their so called hip and happening youngsters. And there’s far too many youngsters who seem reluctant to a) offer any sort of answer or provide input, and b) engage in any activity unless they are in a cohort of people ‘like them’. Which is the same cognitive bias many old people place on ‘those young people today’.

    In my experience it’s not who does it, but how it is done that matters.

    Yes let’s get more future workers involved in these discussions. Let’s not think however the history is invalid