"The current generation has stumbled on an incredibly powerful and important model for changing the world and the workplace: the network."
Malcolm Gladwell had this message for 13,000 HR and benefits professionals at the SHRM 2012 conference in Atlanta earlier this summer.
The New Yorker reporter and author of several best-selling books including, "Outliers: The Story of Success," shared what the millennial perspective brings to American society and workplaces, and how employers can develop this segment of the workforce.
Gladwell juxtaposed the civil rights movement of the 1960s to today's Occupy Wall Street movement to illustrate the difference in perspective between baby boomers and millennials.
He noted that the baby boom generation believed a social organization had to have a strong leader - such as Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era - a guiding philosophy, and disciplined and focused followers. On the other hand, the Occupy movement - defined by flexibility and openness - represents the mentality of the millennial generation.
While the Occupy movement's lack of leadership led to broken messaging and decision-making, the group's influence spread throughout the world through social media networks like Twitter.
"That difference between the way that social organization is done by this generation and by the previous generation is incredibly significant," Gladwell said. "If your job is to understand what motivates people, how they think and how they fit in an organization, [the Occupy movement represents] the notion of the new generational paradigm shift" - one that favors workplace networks rather than the traditional hierarchical structure.
Just as Wikipedia has replaced the Encyclopedia Britannica, the previous generations' notions of social organization as being a closed and disciplined hierarchy contrasts starkly with young people's belief that leaders aren't needed, only connections, Gladwell explained.
Although Gladwell emphasized that "the crucial thing about networks and hierarchies is to understand that one form is not better than the other," he did point out that "the challenge for this generation is to get them to understand the cultural deficiencies of networks."
Gladwell added that the most innovative companies today understand the dynamic of network and hierarchical paradigms - for example, Apple Inc. used both principles to build the most successful company in the world, he said. Under its leader Steve Jobs, the company infused openness and flexibility into a hierarchy to achieve remarkable innovation and impressive revenues.
Gladwell recommended that employers emulate Apple's approach to combine the best of the network and hierarchy models.
"Networks may be able to start revolutions, but they can't finish them. It's up to us [older generations] to remind them of the importance of hierarchy," he said.
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