Blog: Justin Fenwick

Justin Fenwick, community manager of the Arts Alliance, defines art as the artwork itself and also the process of starting something. This week Justin gives the shout-out to Creative Hybrids, a local class of artisan entrepreneurs who form collectives or set up an L3C, a type of enterprise combining business and social mission.

Post 3: Social Media, the Bellwether of Generation Gaps in Organizations

A lot has been written about the aging leadership and future transitions in organizations, especially among nonprofits, a structure that captures most arts organizations. I have attended nonprofit conferences themed on this topic alone. I know this issue existed before it came into my reality and is likely to only get more prevalent in the future. Like with social media, the training and topic pops up everywhere in varying forms of success. I know this hyper-occurrence is an indicator of a deep desire to understand, explain, and strategically position oneself.

Social media serves as a great tool to think out loud about this difference, instead of the more charged topic of this generational divide. In the same way that people dismiss social media as a bunch of junk, folks of different generations can look at each other with dismay. On the surface, the popular examples of behavior we see and descriptions of the tools can emphasize a reasoning for failure or feelings of frustration. This is of course instead of looking at the differences from a point of understanding or opportunity.

When I consult or teach on social media I clear the air immediately by allowing the frustrations and examples of stupidity out of the box, so it doesn't get in the way of my point. By giving people the chance to complain about FarmVille and posts about their cousin's dog, some space is created for me to communicate a message. This message is primarily that you must be social for social media to be effective. I use in-person examples of friends and social groups as an anchor for the type of behavior that builds brands online. The opportunity lies in the same place that we find annoyance in the medium – the massive reach and continuous messaging actually opens up the possibility to reach traditionally unreachable people and audiences.

This is why so many social media workshops are hit or miss. They don't separate effective from popular use before praising the tool and sharing examples. In the same vein, most sessions on the generational divide focus on the differences, in hopes that either side can better understand each other. This leaves it up to the participant to run away with their own conclusions on how to use the information. Even calls to cultivate new leadership by supporting younger generations can be taken in a negative direction of dismissal. Too often, this search for understanding only reinforces the case against these things.

In social media, each successive session leaves someone more frustrated and only more sure that the medium is not effective or useful. In the same way, with each session on the difference between the Boomers, Xers, and Millennials, one builds their case for why the other is dumber, useless, and ineffective. So the action taken is inaction, or worse, they have a greater understanding for what's "wrong" with the other and actively fight against it. In my case, I've had experiences where after reading a book, my supervisor had a specific list of the things I needed to work on or change. This attempt to understand me didn't invite me to the table but formulated an understanding of what was wrong with my generation, just in more detail.

Of course, the differences between generations has always been a hot topic but not with the unique traits we face today. As the age of retirement rises, experienced leaders aren't retiring but just moving from organization to organization. This frustrates the Xers as they can't vie for leadership positions and it leads to natural alienation of the Millennials as they enter the job market with bosses further away from their own reality.

The problem isn't just interpersonal, it's about survival. We're dealing with a natural interruption in innovation and evolution that comes with leadership cycles in organizations. That is, if differences are feared instead of embraced as an opportunity.

Just like with new technology, change is inevitable. What is funny to me is that there is nothing more inevitable than shifting generations, yet the debate and resistance feels stronger than ever. The issue is more personal, so the wrong approach can feel like an attack instead of just a difference in opinion.

Even wide sweeping generalizations of the differences between generations expose an opportunity at the crossroads with social media. Baby Boomers are accustomed to operating in groups and initiating social causes, the Xers bring individualism and stronger subculture, and Millennials have a dedicated "me" or "I" focus highlighted by hyper-communication through technology. That means the skills to community-organize, create a brand on the individual level, and personalize a message or cause exist within our current workforce. These are all things needed for a successful social media campaign, each with a varied understanding of social media. Our annoyances are becoming the tools necessary to execute something well, and everyone gets the chance to be an expert on something.

Still having trouble? Are you about to throw your boss or employee out the window? Try getting on the table the annoying things first and let them stand as an example of misunderstanding. Seek to understand behaviors and the beliefs behind them and how to best put the differences to work. With three generations being broadly squeezed into the labor market, the variety of perspectives could come up with wildly successful solutions to redefining a successful new economy.

Washtenaw County is no exception to the age gap. Our nonprofit and arts environment is vibrant. Talent can be very young, as folks leave the university system. I think it's essential to start forming relationships and understandings that breed innovation and opportunity. It's the only way to retain talent and to ensure the stability of an organization into the future.

This generalization can be used to expose other opportunities. What do you see?