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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.

Remember how worried everyone was about whether children of the 1980s, nursed on the frenetic pace of music videos, would make it in the business world? And then it turned out that the so-called New Economy responded to kids with borderline attention deficit the way a campfire responds to propane?

Now we're concerned that kids' interpersonal skills start and stop at the keyboard. But such fears are no more realistic than the previous generation's, according to young adults in the workplace--and the technological dinosaurs who manage them. The reality is that today's teens and 20-somethings, while hardly a monolithic group, tend to be hypercommunicative. Where most knowledge workers today use two forms of communication--written and spoken--the employees of tomorrow see endless variations and protocols. Far from being awed by current technology, kids will find the tools they need to do what they want, or they'll remake the software and hardware to get the job done.

Businesses and this latest batch of young adults will both be bruised as each side harnesses the other to meet its own needs. But chances are, the combination will result in more agile, collaborative, and communicative companies.

Recruiters trolling campuses should keep their next class of staffers productive and creative, and surround them with E-mail, instant messaging, broadband Internet access, wireless communications, and a way to play music, advises Raj Goel, chief technology officer at Brainlink International Inc., an E-commerce and Web-hosting company. Only literally connecting young adults to a wall outlet would make them more plugged in than they are today.

"Anyone under 25 right now, especially in the 15-to 20-year-old crowd, will not function" without these connections, Goel says. He should know. Goel manages five to 10 high-school and college interns who set up firewalls, secure wireless communications, and install security patches for his company.

"In the office, our primary method of communication is IM, even if we're sitting next to each other," he says. It was actually the interns' use of instant messaging that turned Goel on to the collaborative technology two years ago. "I thought it was a waste of time, " he says. He bought into it when he saw "we turned from a standard 9-a.m.-to-5-p.m. shop to a 24-by-7 shop, because as long as they were on IM, they were reachable."

It may seem like common sense that kids used to frittering away hours chatting online with friends will find instant messaging a comfortable segue into office life, but it may be more surprising to learn that IM--the epitome of ephemeral written communication--is being used in extended weeklong, even monthlong threads.


Edward Maas -- Photo by Rachelle Mozman

When intern Maas needed to communicate with Brainlink clients, he found that E-mail messages were the best way to get his points across.
Edward Maas, 22, interned at Brainlink this summer. Maas talks with his Brainlink colleagues three to five times a week via IM. While working on a major in computer science and a minor in history at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., he's keeping tabs on IT projects he worked on during his internship. "The ability to keep in touch keeps me focused," Maas says. "So when I come back to Brainlink for winter break or in the summer, I'll know what's happening, and that helps me not get lost." So much for the myth that tech-savvy teens are growing into self-absorbed anarchists.

Still, beware over-generalizing a generation. Some workplace newcomers are adopting a personal ethos about digital communications. Patricia Chu, a 22-year-old Stanford University computer-science graduate student, says instant messaging is "something I do with my friends to figure out where to go for dinner tonight. I wouldn't be comfortable discussing work-related things" on IM, she says.

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