The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500

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The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” – the Facebook Generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of work to reflect the social context of the web, rather than as is currently the case, a mid-20th-century Weberian bureaucracy.

If your company hopes to attract the most creative and energetic members of Gen F, it will need to

understand these Internet-derived expectations, and then reinvent its management practices accordingly. Sure, it’s a buyer’s market for talent right now, but that won’t always be the case—and in the future, any company that lacks a vital core of Gen F employees will soon find itself stuck in the mud.

With that in mind, I compiled a list of 12 work-relevant characteristics of online life. These are the post-bureaucratic realities that tomorrow’s employees will use as yardsticks in determining whether your company is "with it" or "past it." In assembling this short list, I haven't tried to catalog every salient feature of the web’s social milieu, only those that are most at odds with the legacy practices found in large companies.

1. All ideas compete on an equal footing. On the web, every idea has the chance to gain a following—or not, and no one has the power to kill off a subversive idea or squelch an embarrassing debate. Ideas gain traction based on their perceived merits, rather than on the political power of their sponsors.

2. Contribution counts for more than credentials. When you post a video to YouTube, no one asks you if you went to film school. When you write a blog, no one cares whether you have a journalism degree. Position, title, and academic degrees—none of the usual status differentiators carry much weight online. On the web, what counts is not your resume, but what you can contribute.

3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed. In any web forum there are some individuals who command more respect and attention than others—and have more influence as a consequence. Critically, though, these individuals haven’t been appointed by some superior authority. Instead, their clout reflects the freely given approbation of their peers. On the web, authority trickles up, not down.

4. Leaders serve rather than preside. On the web, every leader is a servant leader; no one has the power to command or sanction. Credible arguments, demonstrated expertise and selfless behavior are the only levers for getting things done through other people. Forget this online, and your followers will soon abandon you.

5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned. The web is an opt-in economy. Whether contributing to a blog, working on an open source project, or sharing advice in a forum, people choose to work on the things that interest them. Everyone is an independent contractor, and everyone scratches their own itch.

6. Groups are self-defining and self-organizing. On the web, you get to choose your compatriots. In any online community, you have the freedom to link up with some individuals and ignore the rest, to share deeply with some folks and not at all with others. Just as no one can assign you a boring task, no can force you to work with dim-witted colleagues.

7. Resources get attracted, not allocated. In large organizations, resources get allocated top-down, in a politicized, Soviet-style budget wrangle. On the web, human effort flows towards ideas and projects that are attractive (and fun), and away from those that aren’t. In this sense, the web is a market economy where millions of individuals get to decide, moment by moment, how to spend the precious currency of their time and attention.

8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it. The web is also a gift economy. To gain influence and status, you have to give away your expertise and content. And you must do it quickly; if you don’t, someone else will beat you to the punch—and garner the credit that might have been yours. Online, there are a lot of incentives to share, and few incentives to hoard.
9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed. On the Internet, truly smart ideas rapidly gain a following no matter how disruptive they may be. The web is a near-perfect medium for aggregating the wisdom of the crowd—whether in formally organized opinion markets or in casual discussion groups. And once aggregated, the voice of the masses can be used as a battering ram to challenge the entrenched interests of institutions in the offline world.

10. Users can veto most policy decisions. As many Internet moguls have learned to their sorrow, online users are opinionated and vociferous—and will quickly attack any decision or policy change that seems contrary to the community’s interests. The only way to keep users loyal is to give them a substantial say in key decisions. You may have built the community, but the users really own it.

11. Intrinsic rewards matter most. The web is a testament to the power of intrinsic rewards. Think of all the articles contributed to Wikipedia, all the open source software created, all the advice freely given—add up the hours of volunteer time and it’s obvious that human beings will give generously of themselves when they’re given the chance to contribute to something they actually care about. Money’s great, but so is recognition and the joy of accomplishment.

12. Hackers are heroes. Large organizations tend to make life uncomfortable for activists and rabble-rousers—however constructive they may be. In contrast, online communities frequently embrace those with strong anti-authoritarian views. On the web, muckraking malcontents are frequently celebrated as champions of the Internet’s democratic values—particularly if they’ve managed to hack a piece of code that has been interfering with what others regard as their inalienable digital rights.

These features of web-based life are written into the social DNA of Generation F—and mostly missing from the managerial DNA of the average Fortune 500 company. Yeah, there are a lot of kids looking for jobs right now, but few of them will ever feel at home in cubicleland.

So, readers, here are a couple questions: What are the web-based social values that you think are most contrary to the managerial DNA one finds inside a typical corporate giant? And how should we reinvent management to make it more consistent with these emerging online sensibilities?

Gary Hamel will talk with HCL Technologies CEO and MIX Maverick Vineet Nayar about the challenges inherent in managing Generation Y, in an exclusive webinar for MIX registered members on Oct. 4, 2010. Plan to attend “Managing Millennials: The 'Employees First, Customers Second' Experiment.” 

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Gary Hamel is a leading expert on management, recently ranked by The Wall Street Journal as the world's most influential business thinker. Hamel's landmark books, Leading the Revolution and Competing for the Future, have appeared on every management bestseller list and have been translated into more than 20 languages.


Just wanted to say, great post!

Excellent post, although some people will never 'get' it even if they read about it.

What I don't understand is why anyone would want to work for a big business at all.


I agree with German Pizarro ! Very good article.

Wow. I just left a Fortune500 company in April to come work for a small (1000x smaller ) software company and this article resonates with my experience. The big company was very structured, rigid hierarchies etc... Things like Yammer really were tearing it apart at the seams.

Just outstanding.
There was a quote a while ago (can't find it...) about publishers trading print millions for internet pennies.
The quote made it sound as if large publishing corporations had had a <strong>choice</strong>. ;-{)
Can't hold back the tide...

I enthusiastically think that most of the bold statements made by Hamel hold in many web environments, but I would <strong>not</strong> really by any means consider facebook the infecting agent of such desirable new ways of seeing things.

I agree that Facebook isn't the cause of what's happening now, but it does serve as an appropriate indicator: if you don't have an account, you aren't "in".

PS: I'm early Gen X myself, but as a long-time geek, I count myself as part of Gen F too.

I'm over 60 and the "computer guy" at a small company, where I fortunately have virtually free rein to do as I like.

But in my "spare time" I've been managing the development of a website for a small social organization (less than 600 members) run by volunteers.

I guess that because I'm a technocrat I'm more like generation F than most in my age cohort - I opted-in for for the website job.

Funnily enough, it's at this small organization that the board members are the most rigid in their views and want to tell me what to do, despite the fact that I've provided roughly $60,000 worth of advice for free to date. This has turned out to be a thankless task, and it's only my aversion to the cut-and-run mentality that keeps me at it - the old fart part of me, I guess.

I'v been working for a Fortune 500 company for 29 years, so I'm old enough to regret not having the resources internet offers now when I was younger.
Perhaps all this will lead to a better society that I hope to enjoy before I leave this dammned world.

what a great comment and how much fun to work this way. Portfolio living on its way

Very insightful synthesis about foundations of an emerging society. Two things however...

1. What you describe here, shouldn't necessarily be given the F-label. F-people usually waste their time there, while you are talking about general progress of human civilisation. Smart trick, but does not work, at least for me.

2. Last two questions are extremely important today. One is for sure, between hard-core engineers, recently MBA is being translated into 'Master of B***shit Administation'. Dry talkers must be also doers and work for authority, otherwise they will be quickly (r)ejected. The ongoing recession has accelerated the process of this kind of refinement enormously.

What is interesting is that a lot of these traits have been true in open source dev communities for many years. Social media and online communities have however vastly contributed to the spread of these values and norms

It would be nice to believe that all of this is true or will be true in the near future. It certainly is the way things "should" be.

However, no matter how much we bitch about privacy concerns at Facebook, they just find another way to mine and monetize our data. And when they take away public RSS feeds they now do it in the name of Privacy. As if. We've been assimilated.

Likewise, many companies, including my favorite Apple, do well by hoarding information. Some companies thrive by sharing, others by hoarding. As business people we need to decide which is best for us.

However, you're right that we're in the middle of a seismic shift in the way business is being done, but how it all shakes out in the end is still unwritten.

I think your point about Apple and Facebook is right-on. We see two paths emerging, that are polar opposites, and at the same time living side-by-side.

On the one hand, open source collaboration and community participation has transformed software development, news distribution (Twitter), marketing (Facebook), and even corporate rebranding and crowdsourcing (the recent Gap episode).

And yet, as an opt-in culture, by opting in, you subject yourself to the rules of the field. So, Facebook has every right to change its policy settings, since you clicked that "I agree" checkbox. The line between users "rights" and "privileges" is blurred.

And the huge success of the iPhone and the App Store proves that a <em>very</em> closed system, tightly controlled, can be and has been universally accepted by even the most devout disciples of open source. Who <em>doesn't</em> have an iPhone? But Apple is getting carried away. (App Store, stay away from my Mac.)

I think the key here is a hybrid. It's been proven that a pure democratic open source model is not ideal. But I think a corporate, maybe profit-driven core business coupled with strong community outreach and leverage (i.e. APIs) is the key to a successful business.

One more thing - Much to my disappointment, I found there is still an aversion to user testing and feedback in the old management model. Why wouldn't you let your audience tell you what they want?

Simple question, if everyone only has to work on the tasks they choose, with the people and tools they choose, how does one make sure the company is progressing in a consistent direction? How do I make sure a project can complete on time?

That's why every large successful open source project needs a few old-style corporate-sponsored contributors, to make sure the unpopular stuff gets done on time, too.

Good point, and there will always be those who are not willing to be the janitor even for a day, but I like to think that when we're collectively working toward something which we believe has value, the majority of society will be willing to pitch in and take on those less than desirable tasks.

I'd also like to say that this is one VERY interesting article!!!

Thank you :-D

This article cites many of the factors that explain the high quality typical of open source software. There's nothing new under the sun, though, and a lot of this reminds me of the advice given to Japanese businesses rebuilding after World War II. But if tying it to Facebook makes it sexier so more managers take notice, I'm all for it.

In particular, the importance of intrinsic rewards is as old as human nature. This <a href="">article by Joel Spolsky</a> and the work of writer <a href="">Alfie Kohn</a> apply to baby-boomers like me as much as to our children.

Several years ago, I read an article on open source from a major business publication. The writer reported that the reason open-source software was often better than proprietary software was that allowing other people to inspect developers' code shamed those developers into doing good work (as opposed to the shoddy work they presumably did whenever no one was looking over their shoulders). Old ways die hard, and if the only management tool you have is Theory X, then every employee looks like a sluggard.

Hi Gary,
Thank you for this list, there is strong, progressive content there. I read an academic paper not too long ago that you might really enjoy. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you give it a read...The Web as a Techno-Social System - The emergence of Web 3.0.

Beth Hahn, Buzzhaus

The article is interesting and a potential reality check although it is also "singing to the choir" in this forum. Myopic comments aside, if an opt-in society is in our future, we had better come to grips with the reality of covering the non-desireable but essential employment demands as well. Re-think the position of imported labor and how to encourage it instead of despising it or the infrastructure that is taken for granted and allows for the luxury of "opt-in" will collapse and we will have to "opt out" for fundamental survival. The old-guard formula was formed in a post-depression era when the choice to "opt-in" was not an option if you wanted to eat.

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