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10/18/2002
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Communication Gap

Tech-savvy young people bring their own ways of communicating to the workplace, and employees old and young need to adapt.

Nevertheless, Chu gets frustrated when she calls a friend who happens to have his or her cell phone turned off. "You expect to be able to connect with people pretty quickly and be able to talk to them whenever you need to," she says.

Esther Rush, a 26-year-old Intel product engineer who's well versed in technology, likes to think she's not too removed from the school-age interns she supervises. But when it comes to how they communicate, the differences show. If Rush needs to contact someone for a quick hit of information, she'll send an E-mail. If she has a specific question and needs more information, Rush is likely to pick up the phone, then follow up with an E-mail. "Younger people have a different view of E-mail," Rush says. Her charges see it as a more-formal medium that deserves more in-depth attention. "If it's in their E-mail in-box, they feel like they have to take care of it right away."

During the summer, when Maas needed to communicate with Brainlink clients about an E-commerce project he was working on, he says he spent more time typing than talking. E-mail "allows me to be more verbose and explain better what we're doing," he says. "It's more formal than a phone call, especially when you don't have as much of a personal relationship with the client."

Comparatively sophisticated communication preferences, if not outright protocols, speak volumes about young adults' comfort with computers, data, and communication technologies. They tend to have little fear about deleting files, freeing up memory, even taking apart software and hardware to troubleshoot or just understand how it works, says Dennis Trinkle, deputy CIO and professor of instructional technology at DePauw University.

The desire to know how technology works by disassembling it is a hacker mentality, Trinkle says. And it could change IT support. Employees confident in handling minor technical problems might, for instance, make extensive use of Web-based self-service tools to tackle even bigger problems. "At the help-desk crew I supervise, the goal is to head off 60% of call traffic by using self-help resources," Trinkle says. But as those callers get younger, that figure could realistically rise to 80%, he figures, liberating the help desk to handle more sophisticated problems.

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Young adults who are experienced technology users also bring a confidence and openness to new ideas that sometimes freshen stale thinking. "I catch myself getting stuck in the 'this is how I've always done it category,'" Intel's Rush says. The engineer credits her interns for giving her a new approach. "Technology is so much a part of my life, it's common for me," she says. "But the interns are willing to try something completely different."

Sometimes, something completely different is just what's needed to solve old problems. This summer, one student at Brainlink developed a Web-based knowledge-management system that records the company's procedures and operational policies. In the event someone else needs to perform a similar task, that person can look in the files to see how it's done. Brainlink's staff has read-and-write access to the documents in the database, which lets them update recorded procedures.

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