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Gen Z: Design technology platforms for humans -- of all ages

Earlier this month SearchCIO attended the Fusion 2015 CEO-CIO Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin. Held from March 4 to 5 this year, the Symposium is an exclusive annual gathering of senior level business leaders and technology executives including CEOs, CIOs, and VPs of IT. During the conference, session topics ranged from how security is dominating the CIO's agenda to tips on how CIOs can boost funding for IT projects to how CIOs can improve customer service.

One of the speakers at the conference this year was Tom Koulopoulos, Chairman of the Delphi Group, a consultancy in Andover, Mass., and a prolific author. His latest book, co-authored by Dan Keldsen, a senior business strategist at NFP Health, is The Gen Z Effect, which examines how the post-Millennial generation, Gen Z, will change workplace culture. Koulopoulos spoke about what the Gen Z "effect" is, and why IT leaders should care about it.

SearchCIO caught up with Koulopoulos after his presentation to ask him how Gen Z-ers think about privacy, data ownership and failure and how their attitudes are relevant to the CIO agenda.

What is the Gen Z Effect and why do you think CIOs should care about it?

Tom Koulopoulos: So the simplest way to describe the Gen Z Effect is it's what happens when we get rid of the generational divides that stands between different age groups; and for CIOs what that means is that the technology platforms that we're using create a means of collaborating across all ages. So we don't have to define generations by the technology that they use; we define them by their behaviors and now we're all using the same technologies anyway. So from a CIO standpoint, part of what you strive to do is to make sure that platform is common, understandable and usable across all generations, all age groups, within your organization, within your customer base, within your partner base as well.

We don't have to define generations by the technology that they use, we define them by their behaviors and now we're all using the same technologies anyway.
Tom Koulopouloschairman, Delphi Group

How would you advise CIOs to take advantage of the unique mindset Gen Z-ers bring to the workplace?

Koulopoulos: One of the simplest things for CIOs to do is to approach Gen Z with an open mindset -- and not to think of Gen Z in terms of a set of strange and abhorrent behaviors but just listen and observe how they experience technology. One way I've seen companies do that -- Cisco does this by the way -- is reverse mentoring; actually bring on board new hires and use them as a sounding board for new ideas, new systems, use them as surrogates for your customers. And there's a tremendous, I think, capability that every organization has to tap into: Gen Z within their own enterprise. The other thing is that we tend to be very judgmental of these younger generations. I think we have to set that judgment aside and let their behaviors, drive, dictate how we're going to build our systems and technologies. And the reality is that when you deal with customers, you have to let them define the experience otherwise they don’t own it. So from a CIO standpoint, listen, observe, and be non-judgmental.

One issue that was brought up was the struggles Gen Z-ers have concerning privacy and data ownership. How should CIOs approach this problem and deal with it?

Koulopoulos: The issue of privacy is a tough one because we're still trying to figure it out. So there's two issues here: it’s the privacy of my information and who owns my information. Gen Z is less concerned about privacy. They expect transparency in their organizations as customers, as employees, they expect transparency. So you have to give them some of that. But my advice to CIOs and to all executives is that you allow Gen Z to be a part of the conversation. Let them understand the process, make it transparent to them, allow them to have a voice in influencing that process because they have a very deep sense of meaning and purpose and they want to be involved. So let them be involved. From an ownership standpoint I think you have to be very clear in terms of who owns what. Gen Z will give up more information about themselves, but they also expect that they'll have some stake in that information, they will own that information. And if you don't acknowledge that and come to some sort of an agreement with Gen Z around that there'll be a lot of friction, a lot of, I think, unnecessary friction as a result.

You also mentioned that Gen Z-ers have a different way of thinking about failure. What advice would you give to CIOs on how to deal with Gen Z employees in the IT organization?

Koulopoulos: The best advice I can give to CIOs with regards to Gen Z's attitude towards failure and experimentation is let [Gen Z] experiment. [CIOs should] define what an acceptable failure is. So if you're a CIO and you have Gen Z-ers on staff as part of your IT workforce, you have to give them the luxury to be able to experiment outside of the confines of whatever their current tasks are and you have to define for them: What's an acceptable failure? Can you do this eight hours a day? Can you do this four hours a week? How much can I experiment? And be very clear with them that you will accept a certain degree of failure because they want to learn; they want to be constantly educated and part of that is making some mistakes and the last thing you want to do is put a fear factor in place where they don't want to make those mistakes and therefore they won't experiment.

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Interesting idea to let their behaviors drive and dictate how we're going to build our systems and technologies, and it appears to a logical evolution from working with millennials and their behaviors. I’ve seen specific examples of the benefits that millennials can provide in the area of collaboration and adopting a mobile-oriented attitude. The millennials in the company were a driving force behind the idea of “communities” that have flourished across our corporate intranet. They have also drawn more attention to working on mobile devices, helping to foster a more mobile-oriented attitude. I think we often see lack of experience as a negative, but it can also be a positive force within the organization, providing a new, fresh perspective that is often necessary for continued success.
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