IT managers must tackle the online timebomb

Can you pinpoint the moment you first saw the World Wide Web? I can. I clicked my first hyperlink in May 1994, during my final few days as a student. I remember being totally blown away by the ability to press a couple of buttons, and call up a photograph – specifically, a photo of the Irish World Cup squad. Remarkably, you can still find a mirror of the original site. I can also remember the day, about a year later, that I first saw Netscape Navigator version 1.1, with the ability to specify tables and page backgrounds. Suddenly it looked like a creative medium, rather than a coding environment.
So we’re talking a decade, and possibly a little longer, since the web became the mainstream medium we know today. That’s a very important milestone in its development, which organisations need to take seriously.
A child aged 11 in 1995 is now an adult aged 22. A graduate. And probably putting their feet on the bottom rungs of the career ladder. People often joke in conversations: ‘I simply can’t remember what life was like before the internet.’ For many companies’ newest recruits, it’s not a joke. They literally don’t know anything else. There’s a fair chance they have more IT experience and instinct than their line manager… and in a worst-case scenario, more than the head of IT.

Take the example of Myspace, the ‘community site for young people’ (to quote its owner, one Rupert Murdoch). It has something like 50 million registered members, and a growth rate which is still accelerating: according to some sources, it’s adding a million (or more) new members every week. These users, mostly in their teens and twenties, know how quick and easy it is to set up and customise highly interactive websites as part of free services.
Then they start work in a big company, where IT projects’ durations are measured in years, and budgets in millions. Where they find themselves using software older and slower than the versions they have on their home PCs. Where the company security policy stops them using the tools they rely on most – USB memory sticks, instant messaging, you name it. How many new recruits go home disenchanted on their first day, when they see the manky and under-spec’ed bit of kit they’ll be spending all day staring at?
Managers should welcome the fresh injection of inspiration and experience they bring to the organisation. Senior staff need to be big enough to accept, in some fields at least, that their underlings are smarter than they are. They need to define their roles as enablers, giving junior staff the space and scope to make use of their wider experience – not as dictatorial superiors, forcing them to toe the company line.
Up to now, it’s been possible to ignore the problem. Previous years’ intakes were net-literate, sure; but they can still remember the old days. This year’s crowd can’t, and won’t easily accept your excuses as to why they have to ‘roll back’ their life experience. Confront the situation now; because it’s only going to get worse.