It's been a generation since the first people who grew up with personal computers joined the workforce. And today, people joining the world of work have often grown up with the internet
When these workers learned to read, the world wide web and email were expanding fast. They were in school when the dot-com boom peaked, and in higher education as social media and smartphones became popular.
You don't have to teach these people how to use technology or convince them to try new devices. In fact, often it's the other way round: these employees have expectations that their employers struggle to meet.
Bring your own device: the consumerisation of IT
As social media becomes an important part of work life, as new mobile devices proliferate, and as more employees work from home, traditional business IT policies on computer usage and data security are becoming antiquated.
This is often called the 'consumerisation of IT'. It's the migration of consumer technology - including devices and applications - into business computing environments.
There are lots of examples out there. For instance:
- Your business using Facebook
- Your employees checking work email on their own smart phones
- Staff using their own credit card to sign up for a cloud computing service to save time
The consumerisation of IT presents a big opportunity for small companies. But it's also creating a new problem for many: IT policies that ban the use of employee-owned devices in the name of security inadvertently create bigger security holes as users skirt IT restrictions.
In other words, locking down your computers forces staff to find their own alternatives, undermining the policies you're trying to enforce.
Many businesses see an opportunity here. Instead of preventing staff from using the technologies they choose, they're allowing employees more flexibility in how they work.
This often manifests itself in a bring your own device (BYOD) policy. This allows employees to use their own devices (smart phones, tablets and so on) at work.
Taking advantage of the new world of IT
For your business to make the most of these changes, you need to understand what's actually happening. Here are the five key trends that could push your business IT in a new direction:
The rise of social media for business. It's hard to overestimate the impact of social media - both on the workplace and on society in general. According to some research, 28% of all the time we spend online is spent on social networks.
Social media and mobile devices are becoming extensions of personal relationships in a way that makes it hard to separate the technology from groups of friends and colleagues.
As a result, your staff expect to be able to communicate within these networks. It might mean using Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn at the office. If you block access to websites like these, you could be alienating your staff and inhibiting their work.
The blurring of work and home. Flexible working arrangements that encourage people to work from home (or elsewhere) make it harder to control how your employees use technology and to monitor where information flows.
This issue isn't going to go away: according to Forrester, 43% of the US workforce will telecommute at least occasionally by 2016. Expect to see a similar trend here in the UK.
The emergence of new mobile devices. Smartphones are ubiquitous and the use of tablet computers is growing fast. IDC says that by 2017, 87% of connected devices sold will be smart phones and tablets.
It means most employees have a powerful computer in their pocket when they come to the office. So even if you block Facebook on your company computers, there's little you can do to stop staff accessing it on their smart phones.
This is a big challenge for businesses which like to decide precisely which devices and software employees can use. Like it or not, your staff will start using their own kit to do their work if they think it makes things easier. You should probably find a way to let them.
Shifting business models require tech-savvy people. Social media and mobile devices are affecting the relationships between businesses and customers.
For instance, mobile commerce has become increasingly important. And the influence of word of mouth recommendations is being amplified in a world where word of mouth can mean reaching hundreds or thousands of people at once via social networks.
As a result, businesses will need people with new skills: internet-savvy knowledge workers who can navigate social media and become involved in conversations happening outside your company's immediate control.
Employee expectations of IT are changing. Technology is becoming a recruitment and retention issue: younger workers want more flexibility, and if they don't get it, they're liable to look elsewhere.
Try and see it from their perspective: how can they innovate and compete in this fast-changing era if you only provide them with a basic, entry-level PC running locked-down versions of out-of-date software?
These trends are yet to peak, and that's why every business should be considering how to deal with them now. Mobile devices, social media and tech-savvy employees aren't going anywhere.
Move fast and there's a big opportunity. You can attract and retain the best, most tech-aware staff. You can give them the freedom to do exciting, innovative things. And you can build a productive workforce you judge on results, not on how many hours they spend in the office.