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One of the more intriguing aspects of age diversity in the workplace is the degree to which technology has shaped the communication habits and preferences of each generation. For instance, Generation Y (roughly speaking, those born between 1981 and 1995) has a well-documented preference for electronic media, from texting to IM to social networking. Coupled with a generally more casual approach to information privacy, this reliance on electronic media can clash with the habits and expectations of older workers and managers.

As Generation Y continues to move into workplace and up the managerial ladder, these cultural mismatches are only going to get more common. Moreover, as a recent article in Workforce Management ("Gen Y Execs Shake Up Office Culture") points out, this generation's embrace of entrepreneurship is creating new organizational cultures built around electronic media.

The differences in technology preferences can be significant on their own, but the changes run much deeper than just the tools themselves, of course. Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • Lean versus rich media. Lean media, those with the fewest informational cues and least potential for feedback or personalization, are at the core of this culture clash. For example, Baby Boomers accustomed to walking down the hall to a colleague's office or using their phones for actual voice communication are sometimes dismayed at the tendency of younger workers to fire off a terse text message in situations where they believe a more nuanced live conversation would be more effective. Gen Yers, for their part, can sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about, having grown up texting and IMing.
  • Synchronous communication with real-time feedback. Richer media, including phone and face-to-face conversations, can make it much easier to resolve misunderstandings and negotiate shared meanings. We've probably all had the experience of getting stuck in time-consuming email loops where neither side seems to be getting the message, only to resolve the confusion with a quick phone call.
  • A comfort level with distributed, virtual team communication. As networked and even unstructured organizations become more common and traditional employment gives way to independent contracting for many workers, the ability to communicate without a fixed organizational framework is becoming increasingly important. For all their perceived shortcomings in other areas, Gen Y communicators have a big head start here—and could be developing information encoding and decoding methods that work well in this environment but are perhaps underappreciated by older communicators because they don't fit established patterns and process models.
  • Illusions of communication efficiency and effectiveness. Every mode is vulnerable to the illusion that communication efforts are successful, of course, but email and other asynchronous modes are particularly prone to this because it is so easy to fall into the trap of believing that hitting the "send" or "publish" button is the same thing as communicating.
  • Attitudes about privacy and sharing. These concerns range from publishing sensitive company information (or inappropriate personal information) to treating information as a resource to be shared, rather than as a "power lever" to be hoarded and used selectively.

Given the range of important differences involved in media choices, how far should the business communication course move toward reflecting these emerging preferences? There is never enough time to cover everything we'd like to cover, naturally, so how do we find the optimum balance? For instance, many instructors like to devote time to telephone skills, and understandably so, but should some of that time be shifted over to skill development with instant messaging (as one example), given the shifts in workplace habits? On the other hand, one can argue that the very lack of practice and finesse with phone conversations makes this mode even more important to cover in the business communication course.

We'd love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you've already made changes in your topic coverage or teaching style to accommodate these evolving habits and preferences.

 

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