Millennials Aren't The Little Devils IT Imagines

Research suggests 20-somethings think highly of IT organizations and don't flout IT conventions as often as some of us might suspect.
They're the scourge of all upstanding IT organizations, a blight on our best efforts to ensure security, compliance, and order. These 20-something IT natives have no regard for technology policies or best practices--they make the Lord Of The Flies crew look like a platoon of Eagle Scouts. They're not only dismissive of the IT establishment, but they're also rude to their mothers. They're all tattoos and body piercings.

Meet the Millennials. Or at least our crudest stereotypes of them.

Oh, wait--you mean this generation of IT and social renegades isn't quite so "different" from the rest of us after all? In fact, new research from GigaOM Pro and Isurus Market Research & Consulting, sponsored by IT support vendor Bomgar, suggests the Millennials have more respect for the IT organization than most of us give them credit for.

In its survey of 400 20- to 29-year-olds, the researchers found that 74% of them actually give their employers' tech support teams a positive rating. And while Millennials may be more likely than their leathery colleagues to bypass formal company support channels when they have an IT issue (they'll often ask a friend, Google a problem, call a vendor's support line), there's no evidence to suggest they're wreaking havoc on IT governance. According to the research, seeking alternative sources of IT support presents more of a hypothetical problem than an actual one.

Although unacceptable response time is the reason Millennials cite most frequently for not turning to the IT department first (60% of the survey base wants an answer in less than 10 minutes), many of them want to be able to fully describe their problem before calling tech support, according to the survey, so they do some research on their own. Others say they simply "think of Google first."

In a separate GigaOM/Isurus survey of 200 IT managers, 81% of respondents say they view Millennials' tech expectations as "different to very different" from those of older co-workers. And the IT managers surveyed think that up to one-third of Millennials disregard corporate polices. Yet only one in 10 Millennials surveyed describe their actions this way. Clearly, there's a disconnect.

Could it be that the IT establishment is overreacting?

We run a huge risk of creating an us vs. them dynamic. Generations aren't a monolithic race of beings. They comprise a rich diversity of personality types, backgrounds, and values, even if research has identified general tendencies. (Millennials are more technical, confident, connected, self-sufficient, and open to change than older generations, according to a broad survey of them conducted in 2010 by Pew Research Center.)

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Interestingly, the Pew survey found that Millennials tend to respect their elders more than previous generations did at their age. A majority of the 20-somethings surveyed said the older generation is superior to the younger one when it comes to moral values and work ethic. So don't just assume that Millennials are prone to flouting authority, IT or otherwise, because they tend to be more technical or confident or self-sufficient.

And even if Millennials' technology expectations are "different" from their elders' expectations, as the GigaOM/Isurus research suggests, if their demands pressure hidebound IT organizations to improve their products and services, what could be so bad about that? This isn't about appeasing snot-nosed malcontents; it's about reevaluating IT policies and practices to ensure they're keeping up with the evolving needs of employees, partners, and customers.

That said, IT organizations shouldn't just be placating the youngins either. In a recent discussion with my colleague Chris Murphy about collaboration technologies, renowned consultant and author Geoffrey Moore weighed in on why investing in such tools just because Millennials expect you to is a big mistake: "It's a point of passive aggressive acceptance, which is people say 'I don't like this stuff, but it's coming, so I'm going do it.' And I actually think it's the worst possible reason to do it. A: You're not going to do it very well. And B: You're not going to do it in any focused way, and so you're going to turn it into a sop to the Millennials. ... Oh, and by the way, since you do it badly, the Millennials will just laugh behind your back."

If you're not constantly listening to and learning from your colleagues and users, you're not doing your job. But sound IT policies and practices transcend generational assumptions.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief, InformationWeek
[email protected]

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