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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.

It would have cost Brainlink thousands of dollars to purchase or develop a knowledge-management system if the company had worked with a consultant, Goel says. But because the intern managed to design the system in a weekend, "it cost me paying him for two days of work," he says. The bonus: The intern worked closely with his peers to get their input on developing the system, so they all use it. Having that kind of buy-in and usage, Goel says, is priceless.

So will this next generation be nothing but a communications and innovation blessing for managers? Not necessarily. The hacker mentality that Trinkle praises could appear overly aggressive to some and create tension in the workplace.

And having interns troubleshooting snafus can be a distraction, says Mark Prazak, systems and programming division manager at Nationwide Insurance Systems, a division of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.--despite the fact that interns sometimes can handle a problem better than the help desk. "If there's a major release of software coming out and their time is needed to put together that code, they need to allow others with expertise to solve that technical-support problem," Prazak says.

People who come to the office with sophisticated preferences for how they communicate also can appear to be reluctant to adapt to a company's culture, or even its IT infrastructure. "There's a bit of a learning curve when you introduce a generation of kids who grew up on AOL E-mail to Lotus Notes," says John Rooney, a program manager with IBM's server group who manages a group of high-school and college interns each summer. "Five or six years ago, it wouldn't be unusual for a person to come in with little experience with E-mail and none with IM," Rooney says. "Now, they come with 10 years of E-mail and IM experience and they want to use what they're used to."

Of course, there will be those who show up on their first day of work unaware of how grating it can be to read an E-mail that ends with "talk 2 U L8er ;-)," says Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University. "If you're sitting at a machine where you send casual, jargon-filled, acronym-filled, smiley-filled IMs, it's hard to shift gears" to writing a formal memo because, to a younger person, it's the same machine used for both media, she says.

The consequences in the workplace of such "shortcut communications" technologies can be seen in the unwillingness of some young people to use IM in a formal setting, as is the case for Stanford student Chu. It can also lead to a workplace culture that becomes increasingly more informal, Baron says. To thwart such changes, companies can train young hires to write and communicate more formally in professional settings. Or they can "only hire people who can write coherent prose," Baron says.

In many ways, the challenges and promises presented by the new kids in the pod are the same as they've always been. Kids today enter adulthood--and, pray their parents, the workforce--more accepting of the technologies their predecessors are tired of dismissing, ignoring, and fighting. In the new millennium, however, it looks as if the winners will master the art of rapid communication. The new generation appears poised to capitalize on that. If only they and their managers can harness each others' strengths, and not dwell on their differences.

Photo of Edward Maas by Rachelle Mozman

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