Millennials have proven to be challenging in the organizational context, having managers all over the world racking their brain on how to handle, motivate and retain them. Unlike their predecessors, they are not spontaneously motivated by ‘key performance indicators’ (KPI) but rather crave continuous learning. Millennials are seemingly continuously looking for a higher purpose in their life and, in extension thereof, in their jobs. In the realm of these observations about millennials, we can question whether HR analytics are (still) meaningful to manage them.
While existing literature is saturated with managerial advice on handling millennials, their own view on existing practices is only rarely discussed. This article aims to shed a light on a millennial’s point of view and present a nuanced view of HR analytics and silhouette it against the (professional) world as experienced by today’s millennials.
So a twenty-year something wrote this?
Yes, she did. And with good reason, because I firmly believe the tension field between existing professional culture and the generation of millennials is more a matter of perspective and (mis)understanding, rather than an inconsolable difference.
I feel that many millennials are confronted with prejudices, not in the least that they don’t like to be monitored or guided. I’m personally under the impression that this is a fundamentally wrong interpretation of a single perspective observation.
If you ask me, we don’t reject monitoring and management – we crave it. We don’t dislike goalsetting – we want our goals to reflect our view on the world. We are not entitled – we were raised to be critical and stand up for ourselves.
“Millennials don’t reject monitoring and management – they crave it.”
Moreover, I’ve experienced working with HR analytics first-hand, which gives me a unique perspective on the matter. In my first job as an HR consultant, my critical stance was leveraged to further develop the organization, its policies, and its employees.
One of the challenges I was trusted with, was to map and follow up the performances of the organization and its employees and, subsequently, suggest future directions or actions.
Both the encounter with the prejudices about ‘my generation’ and the experience with organizational and performance analytics, give me a unique outlook on the current question: How do millennials experience people analytics?
Millennials are a special breed – or are they?
To elucidate something about the millennial’s experience of today’s world and workspace, let us first look at their defining characteristics. As a demographic generation, millennials (also called ‘Generation Y’) are said to be born between 1980 and 2000.
While millennials of first o’clock are now already in their late thirties, it seems that the ongoing debate is primarily focused on people who are currently in their mid-twenties, taking their first steps on the job market.
“We want enough leave days to make a trip around the world.”
In terms of personality, the characteristics of a millennial are far from positive. Numerous authors have argued how they’re a special breed in terms of standards of living, philosophy and – not in the least – work ethic. Not rarely has this generation been accused of being narcissistic, lazy and entitled.
We all want to work flexible hours, in locations of our choosing and with enough leave days to make a trip around the world.
Now in case you’re wondering, I’m not writing this in my camper, on my way across South America. Or any other continent for that matter. Observing the world around me and talking to my peers has led me to wonder whether ‘our generation’ is as distinguishable as the majority of articles leads us to believe.
“Times change and so do people. However the idea that distinct generations
capture and represent changes, is unsupported.” – David Costanza
While many authors have put pen to paper about their view on the millennial’s characteristics, behavior and beliefs, the empirical evidence for such observations is rather scarce. In his plea against the classification of generations, David Constanza argues that scientific research does simply not back up our idea and distinctions of separate generations. Times change, according to Constanza, and so do people. However, the idea that distinct generations capture and represent these changes is unsupported.
Constanza is not the only author who has denounced the existence of sharply distinguishable generational effects. In their article on millennials and generational differences, Dr. Buckley, Dr. Viechnicki, and Akrur Barua concluded that many of the traits attributed to millennials are related to prevailing economic conditions rather than to fundamental differences in their aspirations.
Such nuanced and contextualized view on generational differences seem to echo through in other contexts, as illustrated by the article of Aaron Levy, Founder, and CEO of a consulting firm helping companies retain their millennial talent.
“New generations are always disruptive, challenging, different.”
If anything, millennials are children of their time – just like any other generation. It’s a given fact that Generation Y enters the organizational atmosphere much more informed than their predecessors. For decades, our society has invested in the education of their children.
Going to university has become a gold standard rather than a privilege and also the organizational context is increasingly evolving in a culture of knowledge rather than craft.
Then why are we surprised by the high standards, the critical stance and the hunger for information and clarification of millennials? Have we not educated them to question themselves and improve the world we live in?
Postmodern industry and the quantification of human behavior
Let’s move on to another child of its time. HR analytics has been described as the systematic identification and quantification of the people drivers of business outcomes (Heuvel & Bondarouk, 2016). The monitoring and subsequent influencing of human behavior fit within the broader framework of a postmodern world and industry.
Drawing upon critical-philosophic authors such as Paul Verhaeghe, our postmodern world is characterized by the manufacturability of the individual, for which economic success is the most prominent goal. Think about it, we all want to make ‘it’ in our lives.
We faithfully follow and idolize entrepreneurs on social media, awe-struck by their successes and wishing we could reach them too. Harder, better, faster, stronger.
“ Humanity has always been puzzled by its own behavior, aiming to understand.”
The quantitative identification and analysis of human behavior find their origin at the intersection of psychology and sociology, with Richard Herrnstein (writer of The Bell Curve, 1994) being acknowledged as the founder of the field. However, the quantification of human behavior resides in a long tradition of human behavioral theories. Humanity has always been fascinated and puzzled by its own behavior, aiming to understand.
The quantification of human behavior was revolutionary because it seemingly was – and still is – the only methodology that manages to make our behavior tangible. Quantified behavior quickly got labeled as real behavior.
The study of human behavior is a tale as old as time, running through psychology, sociology, religion, education, medicine and now economy. The quantification of human behavior serves the goal of an economically successful life because it translates this behavior to the same language as economic success; that is, numbers.
Organizations have been sitting on vast amounts of data for years and now they finally got the tools to do something with it. Identifying and quantifying human behavior becomes the favorable methodology through which effective business strategy and economic success become attainable. Not only for the organization, but also for the individual. A data-driven economy is born.
Sounds like a fairytale
So this is a success story, isn’t it? We are all craving economic success and fulfillment and now our managers, business owners, and leaders have access to an exquisite tool to enable our individual as well as their organizational goals. And they all lived happily ever after – or didn’t they?
“ We want to touch upon lives, solve problems and make the world a better place.”
As a millennial, I observe that the strive towards economic success increasingly decreases in importance for me and my peers. Our goals seem to be more idealistic – we want to positively touch upon lives, solve problems and make the world a better place. Those goals are rather hard to capture in terms of numbers or function titles, for that matter. We don’t strive towards a well-defined dream job.
Our idols are idealists who live with purpose, rather than a well-stocked checkbook. And most of all, we feel like we are misunderstood by managers that merely give us numerical goals such as the number of clients gained, products fabricated, services delivered or revenue created.
While the encounter between millennials and postmodern industry provides food for thought, the occurring challenges are of all times. History has the habit of moving in waves: conservative versus progressive, individual versus collective, realism versus idealism, Generation X versus Generation Y. The tension field between “old” and “new” have always existed and probably always will.
Therefore we should reformulate the question whether HR analytics (as a postmodern methodology) is meaningful to millennials, into how it can be used in a meaningful way.
The answer is a question
The answer to that question, in my humble opinion, lies in acknowledging that HR analytics is one way of looking at reality and all other, non-quantifiable elements are another.
Just like the different generations – if they are at all dividable in generations – have to find a new language to understand each other, so does HR face the challenge of integrating the idealistic millennial’s goals in their data-driven policies.
This requires contemporary business owners, managers an leaders to create a dialogue and, subsequently, provide millennials with the possibility to formulate their needs and goals, by questioning (instead of dictating) them.