by Neil Ward-Dutton

Consumerisation of IT and Generation Y – let’s keep things in perspective

May 03, 20116 mins
IT Leadership

If you’re anything like me, in the past couple of years you’ve begun to see more and more vendor pitches that talk about the “consumerisation of IT” in their setup. This, just in case you didn’t know, is the idea that whereas IT innovation used to be driven primarily by the requirements and interests of business – with the IT available to the general population being significantly less sophisticated – in the past decade the tables have been turned. Now it’s consumer IT driving change and new possibilities.

So far, so good: it’s indisputable that it’s consumer-facing technologies that are making the running today. The IT systems that most of us are faced with when we’re at work tend to be a lot less easy to use than the ones providing consumer services, for one thing. And then there’s the “Google effect”: why is that using Google (or any other popular Web search engine) you can get answers to almost any question in two seconds, but it can take two weeks to get a new kind of sales report from your ERP system?

The pitch I (and probably you) hear increasingly often starts something like this: “You should really take account of the consumerisation of IT: the new technologies and design practices now popular in the consumer technology world represent a fundamental improvement in the user-friendliness of systems. You should really consider how users can interact with your systems, because the chances are there are now better ways to make systems easy to use.”

Now this is all very well, but if you’re a supplier then as a pitch it has a small problem: there’s no urgency in it. If you’re a trying to sell technology or services that re-jig how users interact with systems, there’s nothing in this pitch so far that is likely to compel people to make an investment any time soon.

And so the spectre of ‘Generation Y’ is invoked. The pitch about consumerisation of IT continues something like this: “What’s more, the new generation entering the workforce has grown up immersed in these new technologies: and they won’t stand for 20th-century ways of working with business systems. If you don’t change the way you allow people to interact with systems, you won’t be able to hire or retain bright young workers.”

Just one example of this invocation came from an article right here at CIO UK by Bryan Cruickshank of KPMG. In this article (“How to manage the consumerisation of business IT”), he said “the next generation of graduate intakes, raised on social media, will see email as an increasingly foreign technology. CIOs would be wise to take notice.”

This is a seductive thought, but I just don’t buy it. I think it’s lazy and has little basis in reality. And perhaps I’m not the only one.

Recently Forrester Research publicised the results of a significant study – reported on here looking at how workers of different ages feel about their working environment and the technology they use at work. The received wisdom is that Generation Y is a horde of barbarians at the gate, waiting to disrupt the way enterprise IT systems are delivered. The study goes a way to debunking this: it shows that Generation Y are still broadly happy with the technology that they use at work, and that they’re not significantly more likely to bring their own technology to work than workers of any other generation.

When I was a teenager I loved to play RPGs (yes I was a geek). I had friends who were passionate about skateboarding and listening to the Beastie Boys. When I started work I didn’t expect to be able to play Dungeons and Dragons at my desk; my friends didn’t expect to be able to blast “Fight for your right (to party)” from boomboxes on their desks or skateboard in the corridors. Generation Y might love to spend time Facebooking, but I’m just not convinced that this means they’re going to demand that the IT systems they work with look like Facebook.

In any case, are Generation Y really any different from the generations that have gone before in the recent past? In a 2007 article on this topic (“Generation Y: Love them or lose them”), Deborah Gilburg reviews some of the literature about Generation Y:

“There’s been a lot of talk recently about Generation Y. Its members, born between 1982 and 2005, are known for their sense of entitlement, outspokenness, inability to take criticism, and technological sophistication. Fortune deemed Generation Y in its May 28, 2007, issue the most high-maintenance, yet potentially most high-performing generation in history because its members are entering the workplace with more information, greater technological skill and higher expectations of themselves and others than prior generations. In addition, Time described members of Generation Y in its July 16, 2007, issue as wanting the kind of life balance where every minute has meaning. They don’t want to be slaves to their jobs the way their Baby Boomer parents are.”

I don’t know about you, but when I was a young adult I wanted every minute of my life to have meaning too! I was self-absorbed, narcissistic and impatient. Outspokenness, inability to take criticism and a sense of entitlement are characteristics of young people – and have been for 40-50 years. Now I’m older I hope those characteristics have lessened, and I believe there’s no reason to expect things to be different when Generation Y workers take on management positions.

Lastly – even if we take the position that Generation Y are going to be big disruptors within organisations, I seriously doubt that the impact they bring to bear will be felt on a large scale for another five-10 years. It’s only when they get into positions of senior management and influence that the impact will really be felt.

To sum things up, I have no problem at all with the assertion that the consumerisation of IT is real and that it will (and should) have an impact on the way people within organisations interact with business IT systems and with each other. When it comes to talk about the pressure we’re placed under by Generation Y, though, I think it makes sense to tread very carefully and keep things in perspective. There’s a natural tendency for those of older generations to be fearful of the potential and power of younger generations, and I worry that the invocation of the spectre of Generation Y is playing to that in a negative way.

Do you think that the impact of Generation Y’s desires over enterprise IT are overstated, or do you think I’m missing the point? I’d love to hear your point of view.