During one of the sessions I held in my briefing tour on Gov 2.0 a member of the audience asked a quite typical question, which generated some debate with a clients and colleagues at a later stage. He asked how new generations of employees would fit into an environment based on rules and procedures that are just too traditional and alien to their way of solving problems by collaboration and their attitude toward openness and socialization of information: should we prepare to change those rules to help them fit in?
That same evening I took part in a conversation on a related subject on Facebook. A university professor in his sixties who is an expert in usability was complaining that a youngster had dared making fun of him for using social networks, which would not fit his demographic profile. His reaction was vehement, with support by many of his friends, saying that his generation has founded the Internet and that teachers like him help generation after generation understand the changes ahead.
My reaction is that our generation, the so-called digital immigrants, cannot fully comprehend social networking phenomena, and we keep applying to them the same reference frameworks that we have used to other interaction paradigms. Some of us – including the professor – do remarkably well, but I prefer to admit that we will never be able to rewire our brains like digital natives. However we do have a responsibility to help them get prepared for their own future, to exercise their right to vote, to enter and succeed in the workplace, to address the many challenges that we have left them as legacy, such as environmental sustainability, questionable business ethics, loosening of societal fabric.
So, in response to that attendee’s question, the onus of cushioning a possible clash between digital natives’ expectations and reality of the workplace is on us. But it is not about pampering by creating the working environment of their dreams, with fancy devices and complete blurring between personal and professional identity.
It is about going back to the principles that are at the basis of our rules, policies, procedures, and accepting that those same principles may be supported by a different set of rules, policies and procedures. Our generation cannot design those for them, but we can and should give them the conceptual tools to do so.
Let’s take teachers. They complain that students collaborate on their home assignments and that they exhibit increasing attention deficit disorder. But what are they doing to teach their students the single most important thing, i.e. how to learn?
Same thing with the next generation of government employees, who – we think – will be using tools like smartphones, tablets and social media platforms as easily as we breathe air or drive our cars. What are we doing to teach them one of the basic principles of being a civil servant, i.e. accountability?
We have to be able to distill the key principles that inform everything we do, so that our successors will have clear rails to perform the necessary changes of those rules, policies and procedures, and come up with new ones that still implement basic principles.
To some extent, we have to go back to our constitutions and its principles, to what the very purpose of government and public service is, and to what role government employees are expected to play to comply with basic those principles.
If we are heading toward a cultural clash, it is because we are failing distilling and conveying those principles: to our kids, to our students, to our new hires, to all those who are considered “digital immigrants”. Our legacy to them cannot just be the rules we have stood by in our life, but the ability, willingness and sense of responsibility to develop new ones, based on those same, timeless principles.