Needles, haystacks and the new work force

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So I’ve started teaching at a prominent university in Baltimore. I signed up mostly because I like to hear people call me “Professor DeVries,” but I also thought it might be fun to see what kids are all about these days. As usual, I was completely unprepared for what I would find there.

The Internet and our new work force

Most of my students are juniors and seniors who are eager to enter the workforce and will be sending you their resumes any day now. These students have never been without the Internet and this single influence has caused them to be incredibly different from you and me.

The Internet’s influence is most striking in the area of “opinion formation.” To understand the new graduate, we need to remember back to when we were young. (So many years ago…)

When I was in school, the only reference material I could access was a dusty set of encyclopedias in my parents’ basement (unless by some stroke of luck I could score a ride to the library) which means most of my research papers were written based on my personal hubris and then backed up by any third party facts I could scrounge up. Often these facts were irrelevant to the point I was trying to make.

Your new workforce has had the Internet and the efficiencies of Google’s natural language search capabilities for their entire lives. When you ask a 19-20 year old what they think right now this minute, their first impulse is to go online and look for sources that would inform or confirm what their gut says. And they’ll even change their mind based on their research, depending on what source they use.

What’s the net Net?

Overall, I am incredibly impressed with this new generation. They are thorough thinkers, who are adept at searching out additional opinions to supplement their own. This is a huge step forward for us as a nation with a long history of shooting from the hip and asking questions later.

I appreciate deeply the idea that these young people learn from each other in social media and are more collaborative in all things than earlier generations.

And you will enjoy leading teams of these newbies, because during their first discussion on any given topic they will arrive with well-researched, correct information. Imagine the speed at which your company will make progress now that projects can begin with fewer false starts.

Warning: Data overload

The only possible down side to this information rich generation we’re inserting into the workforce is that they can’t seem to deconstruct the vast research they’ve conducted into nuggets of information. When I assign a three paragraph paper that’s “opinion only,” I receive a 10-page paper that includes vast descriptions and facts, but not a single original opinion.

I had a lengthy discussion with my class last semester about how information is a needle in a haystack. The answer to a question, or the opinion they’re presenting is the needle, and the rest of the stuff they find out is probably just the haystack.

Their final assignment was to provide a 10-page paper that was “all needle, no hay.” And I’ll be darned if they didn’t all turn in 25 pages of hay that simply described what the needle might look like.

So to us all, as we welcome these newbies into the workplace, be aware that we’re going to have to work with them a bit to help them get to the point. It’s in there somewhere; we just have to encourage them to use it. But be ready, because once they figure it out, they’ll be unstoppable.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.