SHRM Day 2: I’d Like to Talk to You About Millennials

Malcolm Gladwell opens Day 2 of the SHRM Conference (Image courtesy of SHRM).

When somebody says those dreaded words to me: “I’d like to talk to you today about millennials,” my first response is, “I’d like you not to.”

So when Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of bestselling books such as “Outliers,” “Blink” and “The Tipping Point,” started his keynote address with those words this morning at the annual SHRM Conference in Atlanta, I almost tuned him out.

It’s a well known fact among our editorial team that I’m sick and tired of talking about, writing about or even mentioning the most overanalyzed and overhyped segment of our workforce today.  Managing the millennial workforce? We’ve done that story several times over in Talent Management magazine in the last few years.

That’s not to say the topic isn’t important or valuable. Our most-read articles on the website are often those that talk about Gen Y and the talent management practices needed to attract and motivate our youngest workers.

My gripe stems from the staleness of the topic. Yes, we know the millennials are different. Yes, we know they don’t respond positively to top-down, command-and-control management. Yes, we know they’re motivated differently than other workers. From my perspective, if you’re going to talk millennials at least have something new and interesting to say.

Fortunately Gladwell did at SHRM, although it took him a while to get there.

The SHRM 2012 Annual Conference and Expo brought more than 13,000 people to the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta for a four-day cornucopia of all things HR. This is my sixth trip to the HR industry’s biggest shindig and it never fails to overwhelm with its whirlwind of people, tchotchkes, workshops and sessions. Generally speaking, SHRM gets some pretty good speakers, although their relevance to HR has been hit or miss in the past.

Yesterday’s opening keynote speaker, Condoleeza Rice, was no exception. There were some highlights, including the former Secretary of State telling her story about growing up in the segregated south to become the nation’s first female African American Secretary of State. There were also some lowlights. Her conversation with CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien veered into a discourse on foreign affairs that could have been interesting if we were anywhere but an HR conference.

So my expectations were measured when it came to Gladwell. Knowing a bit about his work and popularity, I was hoping for the best but thinking the worst when the dreaded “m-word” came out of his mouth.

His initial points about millennial workers, while told well, felt a bit hackneyed. His main argument was the millennial generation, those workers born in the 1980s and ’90s, are prompting a fundamental shift in the workplace, one like we haven’t seen since the mid-’70s. OK, I get it. I got it more than five years ago when we started to cover the topic.

It got more interesting when he talked less in generational terms and more about how organizations are formed and sustained. For millennials, Gladwell argued, hierarchy isn’t the default form of organizational structure like it is for older workers. Young workers weened on Wikipedia and honed by the Occupy Wall Street movement don’t see top-down organizations as the way to get things done. Their approach to authority and expertise is based on networks of peers. So far, so good, Mr. G.

His next point was better: In the great debate between old and young about hierarchy and networks, there is no right answer. Each is a valid and effective way to form an organization. They are simply two different forms with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Well put, Mal.

Even better was his final point: The biggest challenge facing the millennial generation, and those of us charged with managing them, is getting them to understand that hierarchy is absolutely necessary in certain instances. While networks of peers are powerful and innovative ways of organizing, there are certain tasks that simply can’t be carried out by networks, Gladwell said.

The current generation has stumbled on powerful model for change, he concluded. Those networks may be able to start revolutions like the Arab Spring but they may not be able to finish them, as evidenced by the results of the recent Egyptian presidential election, which was won by an Islamist candidate rather than one of the new crop of reformers. It’s up to us to remind millennials of, and to show them, the value that can be found in hierarchy. It’s in the combination of the two models — networks and hierarchy — where real power can be found.

That’s a message I’m ready to hear.