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Tapscott: HR Has Opportunity to Reshape the Workplace

By Bill Leonard  10/12/2011
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Don Tapscott

CHICAGO—Don Tapscott prefers to be optimistic about the slumping global economy. While the prognosis for economic recovery appears grim, there has never been a better opportunity to rebuild and strengthen businesses, industries and educational institutions, he told attendees of the closing general session of the 2011 Society for Human Resource Management Strategy Conference here on Oct. 7.

“We are living in a time of great turmoil, great peril, and a time of great opportunity,” said Tapscott, a management consultant and author of the book, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (Penguin Books, 2010). “Following the collapse of the financial markets, many of our long-standing organizations and institutions are now stalled and are failing. The opportunity now exists to rebuild them. We are at a turning point in human history, and HR is in a unique position to facilitate this change.”

Tapscott told the audience that he recently attended a panel discussion which included the well-known economist Paul Krugman. During the discussion, Krugman stated that because of the collapses of the financial and housing markets, the global economy will struggle through at least “20 years of ugliness.”

“After Krugman spoke, I told the group that my thought on the economy is a bit different,” Tapscott said. “I believe that the future is something that must be achieved and not predicted.”

He described how the human race moved from an agrarian society to an industrial model and is evolving into “an age of networked intelligence.” The technology and communications tools that we possess have led to an age of unprecedented collaborative efforts, he said. Tapscott pointed to the Linux computer operating system as an example of how collaborative intelligence can work. He told the audience that Linux was developed by a team of more than 1,000 people working together online.

'An Age of Shared Intelligence'

“Most of these people never met each other, but still they worked together to create an operating system that has gained wide acceptance and used by many leading high-tech organizations,” said Tapscott. “This is much more than just an information age, it is an age of shared intelligence.”

To illustrate his point, Tapscott noted the differences in the generations that dominate corporate America. While acknowledged that the Baby Boom generation has had the biggest impact on the world over the past 50 years, Tapscott said that the generation now entering the workplace will have the most lasting and world-changing impact.

Although most people refer to people born during the early 1980s as Generation Y or as Millennials, Tapscott prefers to call them the “Net Generation.” His book Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw Hill, 1998) shows how the digital age has changed the way young people think, work and network.

“This is the first generation that has been bathed in bits and bytes,” Tapscott said.

He told the audience that the ability to communicate more easily and share information instantly has “softened the borders of our organizations.”

“Talent can be outside of your organization and more easily expanded,” he said. “The boundaries of corporations are becoming more porous.”

He asked the audience if their employers had banned Facebook or other social media at work. A few hands shot up, and Tapscott posed the question whether they thought it was a good idea to block technology and a communication tool that grows more pervasive by the moment.

“So I asked employees of one company that banned Facebook: ‘What did you do?’ And their reply was: ‘We just moved to Twitter,’ ” Tapscott said with a laugh.

The point is that organizations need to embrace and use social media to their advantage and not ban the technology, Tapscott added. He pointed to a friend who increased the value of his gold-mining company by billions of dollars by placing information about the company’s gold reserves on the Internet. The company’s geologists told the mine owner that while they knew there was gold in and around a mine, they were having difficulty pinpointing its location.

Tapscott’s friend took the unprecedented step of placing the geological survey information on the Web and offering a $500,000 prize to anyone who located the gold. The winner was a computer graphics company that created a computer-generated three-dimensional model of the mine.

'Unique Perspective' Paid Off

“They weren’t the typical talent that works or ever has worked in the mining industry,” Tapscott said. “But their ideas and unique perspective led to one of the largest gold strikes in recent history.”

He told the audience that the old model of business and collaboration will change and that the new generation expects work to equal collaboration, learning and fun.

“Organizations that are not conscious can’t learn and benefit from sharing intelligence,” he concluded. “Networked consciousness is where we are heading and how we are evolving. I promise you that the next period of history will not be boring.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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