CIOs Look Ahead: Millennials, Consumer Tech and the Future

The newest wave of workers, known as Millennials, are demanding technology freedom and a blurring of the work-life line through social media and personal mobile devices. Here's how CIOs can give Millennials what they want without relinquishing control.

It's 1 a.m. and Josh Robin is busy working.

"I'm kind of stir crazy, don't need a lot of sleep, so it's probably prime time for getting things done," says the fast-talking 25-year-old director of innovation at MBTA, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

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At any moment on any given day, Robin might be Skype-ing with interns, Tweeting work updates, or tapping on his personal iPhone to manage a cutting-edge mobile ticketing project. It drives him crazy that his workplace doesn't have Wi-Fi, which basically means he can't use his personal computer there.

Robin pays the monthly iPhone bill out of his own pocket, while a corporate-issued BlackBerry collects dust. "BlackBerries have become the metaphor for old-line IT," he says. "It would be a pain in the butt," if he was forced to use it.

If you think Robin is an oddity, think again. He is part of the next generation workforce known as the Millennials. They've been called many names: Always-On Generation, Gen Y and Digital Natives. They grew up right along with Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Apple's iPocalypse. They have different ways of working, different ideas about their jobs.

They're also the ones who will be running your company in the future.

Millennials and Consumer Tech

The Millennials, born between the years 1981 and 2000, are 85.4 million strong, outnumbering even the Baby Boomers, according to 2010 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Attracting the brightest among them requires understanding and, yes, even catering to their desires.

A big part of that is giving them technology freedom.

Like Robin, Millennials don't want to unplug from work on the weekends and after-hours like their older counterparts, and so they want technology that keeps up with this lifestyle. They're driving today's big tech trends, such as consumer tech and bring-your-own-device, or BYOD, which naturally blends work life and social life.

Slideshow: 10 Coolest Tech Devices to Bring to Work

Truth is, they want to be in charge of the technology they use at work and don't want to be told otherwise. And chances are they do have a better grasp of the power of technology than older generations that grew up with, say, desktop computer towers, numeric pagers and clunky Microsoft Office.

"Millennials have little patience for bad IT solutions," says a 20-something mobile manager at a Silicon Valley company, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press. "When I interview Millennial job candidates, I ask, 'Do you have any questions for me?' They almost always respond, 'Will I have admin rights on my computer?'"

What's at Stake?

Appealing to Millennials with new-fangled technology just might be a CIO's highest priority. Fact is, Millennials will either drive your IT policy or your attrition rate.

Just ask Electronic Arts CIO Mark Tonneson. EA has been moving away from Windows-based Dell laptops and Hewlett-Packard desktops in favor of MacBooks, iPads, iPhones and Android phones. Some 10,000 smartphones fall under a sweeping BYOD policy. EA is even replacing cubicles and offices with open work spaces.

"This is a big push, and it's all in relation to the Millennials," Tonneson says. "As we look to bring on young talent, we're competing with Facebook, Zynga, Google, Apple."

EA's staff retention rate has never been better, Tonneson says, and consumer tech has played a crucial role in recruiting and keeping Millennials. It's certainly not the allure of stock options, since EA's stock has been sliding over the past year.

"They're staying because it's a great place," Tonneson says. "A lot of it is how we deliver solutions and services to them... and not encumbering them with old-line technologies."

Email and the Generation Gap

The effort to keep Millennials happy, though, has a dark side.

At last year's Consumerization of IT Expo, or CITE, in San Francisco, tech leaders spoke of the growing animosity between older workers and the Millennials. (For more CITE coverage, see BYOD: Making Sense of the Work-Personal Device Blur.)

When one company told its employees that they had to use a new enterprise social network to communicate with each other rather than email, older workers saw this as a sign that the company was prioritizing Millennials. Older workers felt their jobs were threatened.

The biggest difference among the generations is how people communicate, says Adam Noble, CIO at GAF Materials. Baby Boomers rely on the telephone, Gen X is all about email, and Millennials prefer social networking, instant messaging and even video chat. Tensions rise when, say, an old-line worker gets a video call across his PC from a Millennial worker.

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"I often joke that if I email my teenage daughters, I'll never get a response," Noble says. "But if I put something on their Facebook page, I may get a response in seconds."

The challenge is to incorporate different styles of communication. Both GAF Materials and EA are working to integrate email and social communication to make the transition easier. Eventually, old-line employees will have to get on board with newer forms of communication.

"You can absolutely devolve into an argument of you-are-young-and-you-don't-get-it versus you-are-old-and-you-don't-get-it," says the Silicon Valley mobile manager. "But people who are the most creative and open-minded are going to adopt the coolest technology, regardless of how old they are."

Millennials Take Work Personally

If you don't embrace consumer tech, will Millennials bolt to a competitor?

Probably not right away, but down the road is another matter. The reason, say CIOs, stems from a common Millennial trait: Their identity is wrapped up in the job more so than older generations.

"Millennials tie a lot of their self-worth to the job," the mobile manager says.

Such a tight bond can lead to job-hopping. If they don't have the tools they think they need to perform at a high level, they may take it personally and become discouraged. As job performance suffers, they will look elsewhere.

Don't expect an older generation's sense of company loyalty to keep Millennials from jumping ship. Millennials have watched their parents get laid off, have their salaries cut, and their 401k's plummet. "Millennials have very little loyalty for sticking around a company," the mobile manager says.

Throwing cash at Millennials won't help, either. Last year, Cisco surveyed more than 2,800 Millennials and found that 40 percent of college students and 45 percent of young professionals would accept a lower-paying job if it had more flexibility on device choice, social media access and mobility.

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The most effective way to foster loyalty among Millennials is by supporting trendy consumer tech in the enterprise, from iPhones to social communication to BYOD. They believe strongly that these tools play to their skills and give them the best opportunity for success, both personally and professionally.

Put more simply, MBTA's Robin says, "Technology tools today can facilitate the different ways people work, so why should technology get in the way?"

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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