The net generation of union members

Two months back now, I was lucky enough to get an invite to a big French conference on Web2.0, society and business, called Netxplorateur, and very slackly I’m only just getting round to blogging about it.

It’s the first time I’ve had an interpreter. Normally I just feel guilty talking to other nationals, as they have to keep up with me in what is their second or third language (I work a bit with Dutch people, and they make me squirm most of all on the omniglot front). The only other language I can half-way operate in is German, and it’s really not all that tricky to give a lecture on how you use das Maus and das Komputer to access das Internet. No such servility from the French though, and not being party to any more of the lingua Franca than it took to order a beer in the cafe, I was branded with the headset of ignorance for much of the event.

The do was in the Senate buildings in Paris and we had a pretty lavish awards ceremony for the top 10 projects chosen from their 100 project Netxplorateur list (of which made somewhere in the 90s, hurrah!). We rubbed shoulders with a few French senators, who looked curiously of a type, like a seven dwarves party where everyone came as grumpy, and we ate possibly the smallest food I’ve ever seen, and played with wi-fi gadgets to squint at all the conference’s paperless papers on the small screen.

They managed a pretty interesting lineup. Chris Kelly of Facebook was good value, as well as an extremely nice bloke, and he gave a convincingly honest-sounding defence when I put the Blackadder affair to him on-stage (of which more – much, much, much more – later…). Facebook have around a hundred customer service workers, but this is still only one per 600,000 punters, which is a little like Leeds City Council having one employee. So they try to automate customer service for minor problems as much as possible. At the other end, they try to stick to time-limited responses on pledge stuff like child protection. The upshot of this is, reading between the lines, that they don’t really bother with anything that falls in the middle (i.e. Derek), as they don’t have the staff time to check it.

Anyway, there was a lot there to get me thinking, as a lot of the presentations dovetailed nicely together into a picture of what the new internet might mean for the world of work. Mitchell Baker of Mozilla talked about the challenges of managing an organisation with 150 staff, 75 of whom are loners in 75 different countries, who’ve never met face to face. Bernard Charles of Dassault Systemes gave an eye-opening account of the changes that virtualisation will bring in manufacturing – with international and inter-company teams working together on new designs in 3D, which would be bid on by the manufacturing firms in a kind of eBay of ideas, and with companies collaborating and consulting to develop new processes in the virtual world, before introducing them into the organisation.

Best value of all was a session on managing the ‘Net Generation’ (or Generation M), with interesting contributions from netvibes’ Tariq Krim, and especially the ludicrously charismatic JP Rangaswami of BT Design (I’ve been following his blog, Confused of Calcutta, since I came back, which is similarly engaging). Rangaswami laid out a challenge to the assembled CEOs and HR managers of French industry, but it got me thinking about what it means for organised labour too.

The new generation coming into the workforce (it’s rather mortifying to find out that as an X’er, you’re now two generations off the model) has a lot of its values shaped by the fact that they are now society’s technological innovators. Looking back over the twentieth century, all the whizzy tech developments started out prohibitively expensive, and were available first to senior staff or wealthy individuals (picture the cell phone in the 80’s, which didn’t really trickle down to the young until the late 90’s). Now the cutting edge of communications technology is released to pro-sumers and consumers immediately, and gets snapped up by the kids, putting them way ahead of the curve, and ahead of their managers. The new generation not only hasn’t been broken into the trad ways of doing business yet, but they have the tools to forge their own ways instead, changing the employers that need to get at their talents,

So this new ‘net generation’ has a bunch of interesting characteristics. They’re collaborative by nature. They don’t see their peers as competitors, and don’t understand why they can’t use networking tools like IM to talk to friends and contacts in other companies during the day. They have a desire to learn and to break new ground, and this is tied to their moral outlook – they want to do things they can believe in, which means wanting to work for an organisation which embodies values they like. They don’t think a lot of job security, and it means less for them to flit between projects and companies, which they will do if they think they’re being compromised. They’re used to saying what they think, and don’t see why this has to stop at the company door.

And it got me thinking, what does this mean for unions? Workers with strong values, who love to network, and aren’t afraid to challenge established practices – Yay, yay and triple yay! Workers who vote with their feet, and form and reform teams around a portfolio of projects and employers – hmm, not so.

One of the questions to Krim and Rangaswami was quite enlightening. The MD of a French transport company said this didn’t fit too well with his requirements. He talked (with tongue firmly in cheek) about how he was a general, engaged in battle with competitors, and needed to know that his soldiers were loyal and disciplined. Krim’s response was that the net generation are certainly used to fighting like soldiers. They come together online every night to play RPG army games, forming brief alliances with like minded people from all over the world, devoting themselves whole-heartedly to the task at hand, and then disbanding and moving on to the next game and next alliance when that objective had been completed. If your idea of work is trench warfare, you’re going to have a hard time getting anyone to play.

We have a great opportunity here, but we also have a big organisational problem. How are we going to keep people in membership and keep our focus? They might come together, score a quick short term victory and move on, and nothing changes longer term (especially when management know full well that the activists will be moving on). NGOs have been looking at this – or are about building huge, loose groups, with a variety of actions and a high rate of recruitment of volunteers, each doing a little bit, in order to survive between the individual campaigns. But unions work best on small tight, localised groups, with some people taking on a heavy voluntary role for years that makes them focus thoroughly on some of the most tedious stuff in life.

I think this points to a few directions for us (luckily much of which is already in evidence in many unions):

  • Unions as professional organisations. The kind of organisation you want to join because you do that job and want to be seen as a serious professional. CSP, NUJ or BALPA are a case in point, but this could maybe stretch more at unions like Connect or Prospect. Not only are these all good unions for people in the workplace, but you’ve a double reason to stay with them when you move job.
  • Transferable membership agreements. It’s better for us to keep people in the loop when they change careers. Mergers are flattening out the industries, but people may move say from design to coding as they progress. How do we smooth the transition from NUJ to Connect, so it becomes a natural thing to do? When activists leave a workplace or union, how do we help the next union to pick them up where they left off?
  • More web comms, and especially web networking. Well duh. We need to engage people in the ways in which they’re comfortable being contacted, or we won’t even blip on their radar. This means stuff like instant messaging to a union contact point, transparent consultation, and marketing that is refocused to the places and tools people are using.
  • Flexible roles. We can’t bank on so many people wanting to sign up to be the workplace rep for the next 10 years (though we still need them to!), and we need to find ways to bring in their talents temporarily. I guess empowering reps with more online comms tools themselves (as Prospect do very well for example) will give them more flexibility here to bring in talents. Members can contribute things that they want to give if we can find a way to break down the tasks more into better chunks (though as anyone who’s been involved in organising an event for techies knows, you’ll get a dozen volunteers to design a conference blog, and nobody to run the cloakroom).

Now there are monstrous big caveats on all of this. When HR bods talk about ‘talent’, it generally means they’re not talking about most of us. These developments are being felt with knowledge workers in highly skilled areas of new tech, where companies are really having to fight to get the right people. Now they’re a barometer, sure, and over time the interest in them will come down to other net gen knowledge workers. But I guess some of the biggest concentrations of the net generation, who haven’t yet made it into knowledge worker roles – say the counter staff at Borders – are unlikely to see much attention paid to their generational quirks for a while. Of course, this doesn’t stop us engaging their preferences as unions – the Wobblies should definitely hang in there!

Pls to share (thanks!):

4 thoughts on “The net generation of union members

  1. Hi John,
    For me, the issue of “Transferable membership agreements.” is a sticky one, given that NUJ members tend to stay members from job to job. Where this becomes problematic is when people like me end up outside of mainstream media and doing media work for other organisations can find themselves facing an exclusive recognition deal with another union that leaves us out in the cold. We need more cross-union membership deals – the NUJ has one with Unison and the UCU, for example, but we have to wait until Unite the Union actually unites into one union with one set of policies before we can reopen negotiations with them.

    btw. I’ve got an NUJ union badge for you!


  2. Yay! Thanks Donnacha. Will be nice to be officially branded on more than just my Facebook profile!

    Yup on the consistency in the NUJ – It’s one of the “professional organisations” that people will aspire to, to identify with the profession, plus it’s flexible enough to accommodate people in full time / part time / freelance / whatever work, which is all good.

  3. W00t
    Thanks for the mention of Connect 🙂 Donnacha I think conect has an agreement with the NUJ dating back to the prestel days.

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