Defining the Millennial organisation

After a night’s sleep, it occurred to me that it might not have been clear what I meant by a “Millennial organisation” in my last post. Here are some thoughts.

We have heard a lot recently about people in Generation Y and how they feel about work. (Here, via David Gurteen, is an example from Teresa Wu that generated spectacular amounts of heat and little light — check some of the trackbacks, especially this rather grumpy one.) What if businesses change in the same way? What would a Generation Y organisation look like? Before suggesting some answers, it is worth briefly summarising why organisations might need to change.

  • Climate change is still with us. It may have been pushed off the front pages, but it is still a reality. It will affect many business models directly, and many more indirectly.
  • The economy is front page news. The collapse of many shared assumptions about growth and prosperity should make us take stock and possibly re-focus.
  • Technology is facilitating many more interesting interactions. 5-10 years ago businesses learnt that they could not survive without at least a brochure-ware website. Now it is becoming essential to identify where and how your market is conducting its conversations online, and join in.
  • People’s expectations are changing. This is not just a Generation Y thing — customers of all generations are challenging their suppliers in ways that were impossible to predict just a short time ago. Employee profiles are also changing — the products of the baby boom are starting to retire in large numbers, potentially leaving a significant gap in the workforce.

That’s a lot of potential for disruption, and there is probably more (I haven’t even touched on globalisation, for example). What will an organisation that deals effectively with all those challenges look like? How might it behave? I can see at least six things, which correspond roughly to the six points made by Teresa Wu.

  • Millennial organisations will support and promote talent, wherever it arises. In doing so, they will need to be able to identify it first.
  • They will take seriously the work started by Ted Levitt in asking the question “what business are you really in?” They will not be afraid to re-invent themselves. (Compare Ford’s and Toyota’s approach to diversification into prefabricated housing, and consider the health of those businesses now.)
  • They will generate a sense of community and common purpose in their people by encouraging them to share and communicate what they know.
  • They will tend to have a flatter hierarchy than traditional organisations, and the leadership will actively involve people from across the organisation in key decision-making processes.
  • They will engage more actively with their clients or customers, in whatever way best suits the client or customer. (Because, as Jordan Furlong makes clear, the market does not care: “You have no right to make money from every problem or opportunity clients face, and the humility that comes from approaching clients that way matters.”)
  • They will encourage their people to bring a sense of commitment to the work that they do, to create better-quality work and a better-quality workplace. This means that badly behaved high-achievers will be tolerated less than they are at present, as will clients who make people’s lives a misery. (Bob Sutton is the guru for this one.)

An organisation with these characteristics will not be frightened of unapproved chaotic information — instead it will recognise the inevitability of the existence of such fragments and seek ways of bringing them to wider attention. It will also be constantly aware of the need to respond to changing markets by changing itself as often as necessary. (I wonder whether this also means that they will have to be smaller in size than they are now.) It probably won’t behave like the firms in Jordan Furlong’s article “The failure of billable-hour compensation“, which describes with alarming clarity “an under-publicized way in which the billable hour poisons the [legal] profession.”

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