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How to harness the power of Generation Z 

Published 17 June 2022 in Magazine • 11 min read • Audio availableAudio available

A generation of digital natives is set to drive the future. Embracing their values and understanding their perspectives could well make the difference between organizational success and failure.

A technology-driven future will require very different organizations, business models, skills and perspectives. Looking back over the opening decades of the 21st century, the first included the dot-com era and was a period of entrepreneurial discovery of the business models made possible by the internet. In the second, there were huge strides in artificial intelligence, augmented reality and more. Now, in the third decade, the challenge becomes more human: we must create organizations and ways of working which both harness technology and maximize humanity.

This process of “radical reshaping” will inevitably fall to Generation Z, the digital natives born somewhere between 1998 and 2016. According to one estimate, Gen Z will make up nearly a third of the global workforce within the next eight years. In the US alone, this group wields a total disposable personal income of more than $18 trillion a month. As customers and employees, they cannot be ignored.

Gen Z has been raised on technology, with little memory of a world without Facebook (launched 2004), Twitter (2006) and WhatsApp (2009). On average they spend more than four hours a dayon mobile devices, according to a Snapchat report on global digital trends 

Millennials, born between 1981 and 1997, are tech savvy, but have different attitudes to finances and shopping, and spend less time online. Crucially, they had to make the leap from analog to digital. 

The attitudes and aspirations of Gen Z will shape the new world order, economically, politically and socially. Understanding what drives them will be key to business success. 

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“Every business needs to acknowledge the presence and influence of Gen Z if they want to stay afloat,” wrote Alexa Dagostino, an award-winning digital marketer and owner of Thynktank Coaching. Indeed, even retirement homes today must consider how to engage with the grandchildren of clients, ensuring that virtual contact, for example, is easily available.

When it comes to brands, Gen Z expects transparency, a social presence, a mobile-friendly experience, meaningful interactions, and purpose.

Research carried out by McKinsey in Brazil (where 20% of the population is aged between 12 and 27 years old) identified four core Gen Z behaviors linked by a “search for truth”.

They “value individual expression and avoid labels. They mobilize themselves for a variety of causes. They believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. Finally, they make decisions and relate to institutions in a highly analytical and pragmatic way.”

In conclusion, the research characterizes Gen Z as bold and idealistic, offering a strong counterpoint to the “self-focused” Millennials.

As consumers, they expect the technical brilliance of one sector to be used in another, a trend that Mehran Gul (author of The New Geography of Innovation: Global Unicorns, Innovation Ecosystems and the Race for the Future) defines as “liquid expectations”.

“You need to widen your peripheral vision,” said Gul. “You need to not only look at companies in your own industry but beyond. You can’t operate in a silo anymore.”

When it comes to brands, Gen Z expects transparency, a social presence, a mobile-friendly experience, meaningful interactions, and purpose
Gen z in the office
“Gen Z will make up nearly a third of the global workforce within the next eight years their attitudes and aspirations will shape the new world order, economically, politically and socially. ”

Gen Z knows the power of tech and expects it to be utilized by organizations, no matter what sector they operate in. And if they are not satisfied, they “cancel” and move on.

The emphasis on purpose, change and activism can be challenging for many older leaders.  Work by Megan Reitz and John Higgins of Hult International Business School finds that fundamental misunderstandings about Gen Z lead to three errors in the face of activism: over-optimism, an assumption that leaders can be apolitical, and a rush to quick fixes.

In our experience, the older generations rarely surrender without a struggle, but surrender they inevitably do. Speaking at our Digital Transformation in Action event, the digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush suggested that seeing this development as linear and part of a collaboration is important: “Previous generations made the investments which founded the basis for today’s technology around algorithms and so on. Ultimately, many of those algorithms and decisions are informing how young people are actually using technology.”

It is also important to acknowledge the positive potential of tech rather than becoming mired in issues such as privacy and governance which, though undoubtedly important, tend to monopolize media headlines. Increasingly there is an emphasis on the opportunities rather than the threats posed by technology.

“Digital transformation needs a range of skills, meaning there is a place for everyone involved,” said Rahul Avasthy, who leads digital transformation and experience at Abbott Laboratories. “Generalists will be valued contributors to simplify the processes, while specialists are required to implement the new techniques.”

A similarly positive view on job opportunities for Gen Z comes from IMD’s Professor Didier Bonnet, whose work focuses on digital economics, digital strategy, disruptive innovation, and the process of large-scale digital transformation for global corporations.

“As a rule, digital organizations default to automating core processes, especially repetitive and unproductive tasks,” he said. “But the bulk of existing jobs are not displaced, they are augmented. Automation takes away many of the tasks that used to bog down workflows, leaving humans to focus on more fulfilling and relevant tasks. Human-machine collaboration becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Robin Bordoli, CEO of the machine learning company Figure Eight, describes the job market potential as follows: “It’s not about machines replacing humans, but machines augmenting humans. Humans and machines have different relative strengths and weaknesses, and it’s about the combination of these that will allow human intents and business process to scale 10X, 100X, and beyond that in the coming years.”

If the emergence of Gen Z is inevitable and the adoption of their values equally so, what can and should organizations and their leaders do in order to shape the future?

We at Brightline Initiative have looked at digital transformations throughout the world. We believe that there are two essential elements if organizations are going to harness the very best of Gen Z to transform the future:

The power issue

From CXOs to Gen Z activists, our experts examine where the real sway lies. In Issue VII of I by IMD, we explore the shifting centers of command and how leaders can inspire, empower and wield influence for good.
Gen Z lady 975x975

Vanessa Nakate

Climate activist from Uganda and founder of the Rise up Climate Movement, which aims to amplify the voices of activists from Africa

alexandr wang

Alexandr Wang

Co-founder of Scale AI which has won contracts worth more than $350 million to help America’s Air Force and Army employ artificial intelligence. He is the world’s youngest self-made millionaire, according to Forbes

tycho onnasch

Tycho Onnasch

Tech entrepreneur who created the Deedmob platform to connect volunteers and employees with social organizations. He is now focused on building a better internet as General Manager at Trust Machine, which is creating the largest ecosystem of Bitcoin applications.

carmen jenny

Carmen Jenny

Co-founder and CEO at sustainable fashion startup ClothesFriends, a digital App that allows people to rent out their clothes to others

Find and retain the right people

“Digital transformation is irreversible, in the same way as a caterpillar changes into a butterfly,” said Avasthy. “It is not just about applying a new technology or simply changing a business process.” It begins and ends with people.

Organizations should look at their recruitment approach from cultural, skillset/talent, organizational and technological perspectives, and put it into the holistic context of the whole organizational strategy. The challenge is to find talent with the ability and willingness to learn, curiosity, adaptability, and self-motivation. Organizations need to ask how they can accommodate the needs and perspectives of the younger generations in regard to talent retention and recruitment strategies.

Developing talent from within and attracting great people from outside need to be highly developed and targeted activities. Companies often struggle to find new employees with the requisite experience and knowledge needed in a specific technology. And, in any case, that technology will quickly become outdated. The most practical solution is to develop talent in-house wherever possible.

A commitment to lifelong learning is key. “Constant change is all you can count on,” said Harfoush. “So, culturally in organizations we are seeing companies giving people the time and space to think about how their businesses are changing. Learning is becoming a reclaimed executive function.”

Bonnet echoes this: “Raising the digital IQ and developing key skills in an organization have been key challenges in digital transformation. They become a must-have when operating as a digital organization. And it’s not a one-off. The need for continuous learning becomes greater, not smaller.

“Reinventing how we enable continuous learning, at scale, for our employees is paramount, and a major transformation for our existing HR and learning functions. Digital organizations also demonstrate an elevated organizational capability to use tools and data to dynamically deploy and reconfigure both human work and capital resources at speed.”

Michelle Weise, author of Long Life Learning and Vice Chancellor of Strategy and Innovation at National University System, argues that learning has to take center stage as a way of attracting and retaining the right people.

“We really have to start re-imagining the workplace as the classroom of the future,” she said. “What most people don’t realize is that, on average, even our early baby boomers are experiencing 12 job changes by the time they retire. And so, for many of us who are going to face an extended working life and lifespan, it’s easy to imagine that we’re going to have to go through maybe 20 or 30 job changes over a lifetime. When we think about how inordinately difficult it is just to navigate a single job change, that’s where we really have to start thinking about designing the infrastructure and architecture for life-long learning.”

Our research  demonstrates that hiring and retaining top-notch talent facilitates a smoother journey for transformation. This highlights the importance of improving internal learning and development programs, while still continuing to invest in recruitment efforts.

Class room
“We really have to start re-imagining the workplace as the classroom of the future”
- Michelle Weise

Embrace activism, empower employees

If people are to be attracted, retained and developed, organizations must meet their needs as never before. Given the focus of Gen Z on changing the world, there is a strong campaigning, or activist, element to this. Reitz and Higgins suggest that the rise of Gen Z coincides with the emergence of what they describe as the “activist employee”.

 “What to one person is activism, even rebellion, is, in the eyes of another, an issue of fundamental human rights — something they have no choice but to pursue,” conclude Reitz and Higgins. “Activism can be usefully understood as voices of difference that challenge the established status quo as to who gets heard and/or what should be included in the formal organizational agenda.”

Allowing employees to voice ideas and solutions demands very different types of organization. The necessary shift is from a top-down approach driven by the CEO to a fluid and open approach which enables voices to be heard. At Haier, the company chairman Zhang Ruimin talks of “making each individual their own CEO, an autonomous person whose performance and potential is maximized by their membership of the organization”. The aim of the company, he said, was to create an “entrepreneurial ecosystem driven by energy, momentum, self-realization and mutual benefit”.

Such aspirations fit neatly with those of Gen Z. Meeting them is the organizational challenge of our times.

Gen Z

Young people need a voice on the board

73% of young leaders say the older generation does not show enough willingness to give them greater decision-making power in the economic sphere

Find out what gen Z really thinks

Authors

Emil Andersson

Project Manager of Brightline Project Management Institute (PMI)

Emil Andersson is Project Manager of Brightline Project Management Institute (PMI). He is a consultant and practitioner in the field of business strategy, transformation, and project management. 

Tahirou Assane Oumarou

Director of PMI

Tahirou Assane Oumarou is Director of PMI. He has over 20 years of experience in leadership roles, civil engineering, strategy, transformation, and project management

Yavnika Khanna

Chief Impact Officer at Impactika Consulting

Yavnika Khanna is Chief Impact Officer at Impactika Consulting. He has been leading marketing and technology projects for 15 years. Impactika Consulting provides digital marketing services for organizations that aim to drive positive social impact.  

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