There are few things I find as disruptive as messaging interactions that meander about without a clear purpose.
You know the ones I’m talking about.
The kind of conversation that generates a message every ten minutes but never seems to get to the point. I was complaining about this recently to a co-worker of mine and I was surprised by his response. My young co-worker didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all. He told me it was normal for him to be involved in a half dozen or more of these kinds of interactions at any given time. He seemed genuinely pleased to be having these ongoing extended conversations, feeling connected to his friends and colleagues.
I should be upfront that he is a Millennial and I’m a Gen Xer. I mention this because I am increasingly convinced that generational differences can help explain our very different attitudes and reactions to this sort of conversation.
Generational values and attributes
Admittedly, I’m not usually conscious of being a Gen Xer. And while I don’t usually think about it, there seems to be a building awareness that there are in fact significant differences in values and attributes between generations. Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends report featured a slide (see slide 51) summarizing some of these differences. According to Meeker, Gen Xers are independent and self-reliant; they grew up with PCs and typically use one screen at a time. In contrast, Millennials are more globally minded, are much more group oriented, and typically use more than one screen at a time. Meeker’s slide reminded me of a blog I recently read that discussed generational differences on how they view their relationship networks.
If Gen Xers typically view their networks as consisting of a collection of connections to other individuals, Millennials see their network as consisting of a number of different groups to which they belong. For Millennials, their sense of identity comes from the groups they are members of in comparison to the more individualistic orientation of the Gen Xers. These different network views lead to a different understanding of what a meaningful interaction is. For those in Generation X, a meaningful interaction is primarily a point to point transaction between two individuals. Compare this against Millennials who derive meaning from teamwork, a sense of belonging to and sharing values with a group, and expressing themselves to a group.
Gen X versus Millennial communication patterns
Looking at these generational differences got me thinking about communication preferences. Could these different generational values affect the frequency and type of communication that individuals engage in? For Gen Xers, there certainly seems to be a preference for point-to-point communications, such as phone calls and email. The one-conversation-at-a-time mentality matches the Gen X network view of conversations being transactional interactions between individuals, with a default state of not being in a conversation. Millennials seem to prefer messaging, especially group messaging, and social application interactions. Both of these are much more group oriented than something like a phone call, which is often the last choice of communications method for a Millennial.
Over half of the employees at Fuze are Millennials, and as I look at how they communicate, I can see that there really does seem to be a generational preference for group-based communications and for being in multiple conversations at any given time. I see our younger employees in video collaboration sessions all day long that they just leave on while they message from their mobile device and email from their laptop. All of these different simultaneous communications don’t make sense to me because I’m thinking about them as hanging transactions, as interactions that haven’t gotten to the point yet. But for Millennials, I think they provide meaning through a sense of connectedness and serve as a reminder of the groups they are part of; this combined with a default preference to have multiple conversations occurring simultaneously means that open conversations aren’t a distraction in the same way that they are to me.
Communicating outside your comfort zone
I don't think it’s a coincidence that the communications systems designed by Gen Xers often emphasize point-to-point interactions as primary and multi-point interactions as secondary. Within enterprise voice communications, the PBX has always been centered around point-to-point interactions. Multi-point audio bridges have historically been separate systems or optional add-ons that don't represent the default mode of communication. Messaging is similar where traditional systems have emphasized point-to-point interactions versus group ones. More recent, modern messaging applications are much more oriented to group and topic-oriented conversations, and that may explain the recent surge of adoption for these tools.
Millennial preferences will exert increasing influence on communications patterns in the workplace as well as the design of communications systems. I expect group communications features to continue to rise in importance. The distinction between point-to-point and multi-point modes of communications will start to break down as the need to natively support both group and point-to-point interactions becomes a basic requirement.
Millennials could do well to learn when it is best to take a more direct, transactional approach (for the Gen Xers out there, don’t be afraid to continue to tell Millennials to just pick up the phone and talk to the person versus sending all of those repeated messages!). However, it may be more likely that a Gen Xer like me needs to get better at being part of multiple ongoing conversations at once, able to stop resorting to immediately looking for the point in my conversations and get used to communication preferences that other people in the larger group – many of whom are Millennials – may have. There’s a generational bridge that can and must be crossed for the future of communications, and there’s much to be learned from both group’s user preferences to build a better experience across the board.