“Use Me or Lose Me”

Marc Prensky
Marc Prensky

Baby Boomers are retiring in large numbers and companies are hiring younger IT professionals. How can companies best leverage the talent of the “generation tech” workers?

Prensky: We’re seeing that, especially at the high end of the technology world, young people are coming to us with very advanced levels of technical skills. And they are eager to use them. They program well, they may have made videos and posted them online, and they may even have started their own online companies. They are what I call “Digital Natives.” They have grown up immersed in technology and it influences everything about their approach to life. One successful young man, speaking about his experience with a cooperative/competitive online role playing game called “Guild Wars,” told me that everything he does every day he can do because he managed a 300 member guild, and they were not an easy group to manage.

These young, inventive, efficient workers come to us all fired up, ready to contribute. And what happens in their first week on the job? Typically we don’t engage them. We don’t listen to them. We send them off to training and bore them to death.
They are capable of contributing at much higher levels than we are asking them to, and they want to engage right from the start. Unfortunately, most of them have to “power down” to be at work.

Where’s the disconnect?

Prensky: Companies tend to look at new hires as people who have to be indoctrinated. They’re the lowest on the totem pole, and they have to “pay their dues” before they can achieve any level of respect or credibility. This is a classic top-down perspective.

Young workers today won’t tolerate this. Their attitude is “use me or lose me.” They’re willing to work incredibly hard when you give them interesting, meaningful things to do. If you can’t give them something to sink their teeth into, they’re gone.

What’s a better starting point?

Prensky: Here’s my 3-day prescription: When people enter a company you have three days to ask them “What do we do that’s stupid?” Ask that question after they’ve been there longer than that and they will already have been acculturated to “this is just the way we do things.” So, right out of the gate, ask them. Observe them. Challenge them. Listen to them. You will be amazed at what valuable information and new approaches they will give you. Then use it. For instance, in fast-moving industries, they can contribute ideas about how to build and maintain relationships with customers online, using blogs, wikis, and commercial social networking tools, and doing less traditional face-to-face meeting. Younger workers may have ideas on products that would appeal to the needs and preferences of younger customers. If you harness their way of thinking, the “use me or lose me” workers can be a competitive advantage.

Think about the influence of young employees at Microsoft in the 1990s who challenged Bill Gates to pay more attention to the Internet. He listened and declared that the Internet would be at the center of everything the company did. It’s a perfect example of a bottoms-up transformation. Look for it. Encourage it right from the beginning.

In order to motivate young IT professionals and leverage their new way of thinking, how can companies make training more valuable?

Prensky: Let’s face it. There’s just nothing worse than being trapped in a room with somebody reading each bullet on somebody else’s PowerPoint slides.

If you really want to do something interesting you need to re-think what training is all about. Think about saying this: “Instead of sending you to training, we’re going to send you to ‘innovation.’ We’ll tell you what we do – that’s not the mystery. But it’s your work here in training to innovate. You get to figure out some new ways.” We need to keep it fresh. That’s what new eyes are for. That’s what young blood is supposed to do.

What is your vision for games in successful corporate training?

Prensky: Older managers will do well to let the younger generation’s play attitude enter the “real” world of business as quickly and smoothly as possible. This is an opportunity to support and fund the development of game interfaces that help the younger generation work and learn in their own cognitive style.

And actually, the appeal of game-based training is not limited to younger workers. PriceWaterhouse Coopers uses a game called “In$ider” for training auditors and accountants on derivatives, one of the most difficult topics in the capital markets industry.

What are the main fields to apply this training method?

Prensky: Digital game-based learning is enormously versatile. It’s adaptable to almost any subject, information, or skill to be learned. For instance, First Union Bank, now a part of Wachovia, saw the value in using a game called “Situational Leadership” in conjunction with classroom learning at its Leadership College. Nortel Networks uses a game to communicate strategy. Cummins used a game called “Cummins Secret Agent” to train sales people for a new product launch.

Games can be used for certification and continuing education. The California Bar Association used a game called “Objection!” for its Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Program. The game subsequently became accredited in nineteen states.
Polaroid found a way to use a game for Total Quality Management and called it “The TQM Challenge.” IBM uses digital game-based learning for project management. And because technical skills often lend themselves to technical solutions, digital game-based learning may provide the needed solution. One example is “Monster Command” and “Key Commando” developed to teach the use of keyboard shortcut commands instead of a mouse for many frequently used functions in the newspaper design industry.

What’s the key difference between games and other digital learning tools?

Prensky: Be aware that this isn’t about turning old style “tell-test” and “sage on the stage” trainings into e-courses, a deadly dull approach that rarely engages learners. Amy George at PepsiCo was very clear about this when she told me, “Putting up a bunch of information on a Web site was just as boring as being handed a binder…so we decided to incorporate a game.”

Business learners have changed as their technology has changed. I believe that digital game-based learning works because it plays on this generation’s identification of learning with “fun” rather than with “suffering.”