What They Learned in College

In my MBA course this past spring our classes on Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 went very well.  They were a mix of case studies, lectures, and show-and-tell discussions.  I left most of the classes thinking I’d accomplished one of the most important objectives for any teacher —  staying at least 1/4 step ahead of the students.  I’d simply spent more time looking at the technologies and thinking about their implications than my students had, which helped me maintain my slim lead.

I felt good about my odds of staying ahead of them in this area until I realized that Web 2.0 ‘happened’ after today’s MBA students left college.  Highly unscientific sampling shows me that the second years I’ll be teaching this spring were most likely to have graduated in 2001.  Let’s look at what’s happened between then and now.

2001

2002

2003

  • Social bookmarking site del.icio.us comes online.
  • Google buys online blogging service Blogger from Pyra Labs.
  • Online blogging service TypePad launches.
  • Myspace launches as a social networking site.

2004

  • Photo sharing site Flickr launches.
  • thefacebook, later Facebook, launches at Harvard.
  • Lightweight online project-and-collaboration-management suite Basecamp launches.
  • Gmail launches in April.
  • The first Web 2.0 conference takes place.
  • Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley launch Wikia, a free wiki hosting service.
  • eBay buys 25% of craigslist.com.

2005

2006

  • Google calendar launches in April.
  • Google acquires Upstartle, makers of the Writely collaborative text editing suite, early in the year.  Google announces Google Docs & Spreadsheets, both of which have collaborative features, in October.

This year’s college graduates matriculated in 2002, entering environments of higher learning characterized by ample bandwidth, pervasive computers, constant tasks and deadlines, and great desire for socialization.  Look back over the list above at the tools that have come on line since they’ve been in college to help them with their work and/or their play.

When they take jobs, do you think they’ll willingly stop using such tools?  Will they happily switch over to legacy corporate collaboration technologies that are less freeform and harder to search, make them jump through more hoops, restrict their privileges and access based on their position on the org. chart, and generally have a ‘pre-Web 2.0’ look and feel?

Many, if not most, knowledge workers sit in front of computers for large portions of the day.  The applications they use probably have a large impact not only on their productivity, but also on their mood, and on their affinity for the organization that put the tools in front of them.  

Let’s say that The Economist and others are right and the global war for talent really is heating up.  I imagine that an increasingly important front in that war, at least for new entrants to the skilled workforce, is going to be the technology environment built by companies —  the one within which they expect their people to do their work.  Environments that support the way smart young people want to work, and are used to working, are going to look comparatively attractive.  

I also imagine that when smart young people look at the Intranets and collaboration technologies currently in place at a lot of companies, they’ll find them (to use a polite term) quaint.  And I doubt that quaint is what they’re looking for.

I’m glad we teach via the case method at HBS, because I feel like my slight lead over my students in understanding the new tools and collaboration modes is about to vanish forever.  In a case discussion I can rely on them to teach each other about the latest trends and tools.  In a lecture I’d have to do that, and something tells my lectures on the topic are quickly heading for quaint status in their eyes.