What happens when a whole generation that has lived their entire lives with the ability to feed information to themselves (and at a time and format of their choosing) becomes the dominant group in the workforce? What happens when this group of entirely social, entirely digital, entirely in-command-of-their-world workforce is running the critical elements of how we conduct business?

Ah, the simple life

We grew up being fed. We learned from our parents, teachers and the evening news. We knew exactly and only what we digested from people, books and a limited amount of video. College was no different and certainly work was the same. There was a time and place for each step of the way, and it was defined and scheduled by other people. “Happy Days” could only be seen one night per week and if you missed it, it was gone forever. You took certain classes in your first semester of college because that’s the only way you’d be finished before graduation. We followed the proven path.

Since the dawn of the workplace, that proven path has meant we hire and train to create a junior version of ourselves. We want the next generation to learn what we know and to gradually become more proficient at what we already do. We expect improvements along the way that technology enables, but no seismic shifts.

Even with the arrival of the PC, which was first adapted to automate accounting and word processing, which were just an automation of the ledger and the typewriter, the latter of which was just an automation of the task of handwriting, the change has been gradual and steady, even while accelerating.

What if the expectations of our future hires won’t let it happen that way? What if the coming generation has only lived in a world that allows for instantaneous communication and receipt of ideas? What happens when an elementary student has at his fingertips the ability to know exactly what is happening in any far-flung corner of the world? What type of expectations are being developed and how will those expectations affect the world of business and how work is done?

Life is a playlist

Depending on who you listen to, Generation Z was born between 1991 and 2001 and is still being formed. They’ve grown up in a ‘playlist world’ where they can customize their life and take only the elements that matter, not the whole album. Their expectations will be no different when they begin their careers…they won’t expect to be given the entire ‘album’ of work instructions. Instead they’ll expect to be able to find and digest only the information that matters to their daily tasks.

At another level, they have been able to see their world in an amazingly clear context. They know the most intimate details of whatever they choose to know. In the same way, they will expect to see their efforts in the context of the broader enterprise’s efforts. That connectivity and visibility are their gratification. They come from an amazingly democratic and interconnected technological world and will expect to contribute immediately and for their efforts to be just as visible and open to feedback as their web-enabled social interaction.

Lest we be judged

Don’t be fooled into thinking that they are impatient and only gratified in the instant. Don’t think they have acquired ADD like a birth condition. That would be selling them short and wouldn’t capture the amazing energy and creativity that they uniquely bring. Their lives assume a high level of technology-enabled interaction. And they don’t just decide on technology, they depend on it to do the most common thing we all do, find out and communicate.

Useful work systems need to be designed and revamped to harness these new ways of thinking and doing because Generation Z will format their world to their tastes…because they’ve been taught that life can be tailor-made. They can and will collaborate online with people they’ve never even met. They aren’t limited to home or desk computers as they carry everything they need in their pockets. They believe work can be the same way. Work will be the same way.

A good friend and collegue, Tom Molyneux, recently made the following points to me about where we are now with the people entering the workforce:

“They expect things to be intuitive and easy to use. We’re 15 years into usability and information architecture – this is a well worn path. Look, if I had to work to figure out how to use Facebook, I wouldn’t bother. I use it because there is no learning curve. And this isn’t about being lazy – it’s having expectations that the designers aren’t lazy or clueless – that they think about my needs and how I’ll interact with their product.

“Like the iPad. Who’s ever cracked the manual? But think of how we ask our employees to learn about work. Printed Word docs with tables of content? Visio diagrams so confusing an electrical engineer couldn’t make sense of it? This is not the way that Generation Z expects to interact with their world – and why should they? Work, for this generation has to be like Facebook – personalized, immediately relevant, easy to find, easy to understand, connected.”

We have an amazing opportunity to plan for this inevitable sea change and for it to be less of a cultural clash. After all, the iGeneration will need to use their best skills to solve some of the worst socioeconomic, environmental and security challenges ever to face our planet. They will also be funding our retirement. Both of those points are enough to get my attention.