Take a look at your desk. At first glance it may not seem to too different to what it looked like 15 or even 20 years ago. You probably have a computer of some sort, a desk phone and a notepad and pen - all items you would have had in the mid-nineties. But look more closely: somewhere on your desk is probably your mobile phone, and the chances are it's a smartphone.
The ubiquity of the smartphone is almost symbolic of the revolutionary change we are going through. Communications are everywhere. We are constantly inundated with messages, tweets and status updates pretty much wherever we go - something that was only just beginning 15 or even 10 years ago.
I have a 12 year old daughter and in just six years' time she could be joining the workforce - (let's not talk about how scary that is for me). Yet at the time of her birth we didn't 'google' everything and we didn't arrange our social lives on Facebook. In fact 'google' didn't officially become a verb until 2006; just seven years ago. That's how fast things have been moving.
The point is my daughter and millions of other millennials will make up 75% of the workforce in less than ten years. A 75% that is wired differently - not only have they never known a world without the internet, they also don't remember a world that isn't instant and collaborative. And thanks to their always-connected lifestyle, they expect immediate answers and constant engagement. These millennials will have a profound impact on the way businesses operate.
While young, connected, tech-savvy types bring many benefits to the workplace and are expected to revolutionise the way we work, it's worth considering whether we are ready for this wave of change?
Constant bombardment from a range of media, for example, is entertaining, but it's not always productive. Today, employees have to wade through gigabytes of information day in, day out, just to get their jobs done - from emails, RSS feeds, twitter, Facebook and other sources. In fact, many people I speak to feel that they are losing control of information they themselves have subscribed to. Sadly, much of this is down to the fact that typical working environments weren't built to cater for this mass influx of information: they aren't set up to deliver instant answers; they don't encourage or enable collaboration and the technology isn't capable of delivering the experience we're used to getting at home. As time marches on, businesses that continue to rely on their current systems will find they are swimming against the tide and sooner or later they will go under.
Organisations need to help their employees find a way to make this range of media work for them. And there are ways. For example, I am part of several virtual teams and, using tools like communications groups and favourites, I can define and organise them within my social media outlets. This means that messages pop up differently for each team or group and indeed for subgroups within the group, and I'm able to handle each of them differently depending on how involved I am. As a result, I've been able to reduce the time I spend reading the flood of email communications each day. Another good example is the way people use Instant Messaging to ask and answer shorter questions, cutting the daily email flood considerably.
The point is, if we're going to give people the tools to collaborate, we have to give them the power to be able to use them productively. Organisations need to create effective and engaging working environments for employees, and technology can really help here. For example, I use a tool that allows me to decide how - i.e. via which media - people are able to contact me, yet every message, regardless of the format it comes in, ends up in a single, centralised in-box. I can also choose how I want to access those messages - as text or speech. And when I say messages, I mean video, speech, IM and chat, emails, Twitter and SMS. These sorts of tools are opening up huge communication channels to time-pressured employees.
In the end, what it all boils down to is business control of social and other media. For many employees the word 'control' makes them very wary and I can understand why. But in this case 'control' is about allowing employees to get a better handle on the deluge of information they are confronted with, giving power back to the people if you will. And for a generation of independent, connected, young millenials, my guess is this should go down well!