Work experience and Amazon Echo
The unique advantages of young people in a world of rapid technological change
Historically the more experience you have in a job, the more productive you are
However, with experience comes preconceived notions of “how things work”
It is easier to learn something initially than to unlearn and relearn new things
Rapid technological advancements give unique advantages to younger people
Seek to blend a healthy range of experiences to spur new ideas and innovation
“Alexa, tell me a prank”
We live in a remarkable time of rapid technological change. My three kids often ask me about my childhood experiences, and they enjoy my stories of corded phones with rotary dials and turning the knobs on our TV to change channels. It is common when introducing a novel or new technology to tie it to familiar concepts. While an iPhone does indeed have the functionality to provide a telephone number and call someone, it is clearly a much more expansive and powerful technology. So why call it a “smart phone”? Because it is more relatable to everyday consumers as the evolution of mobile phones than as a supercomputer in your pocket.
While terminology and analogies can help new technologies feel familiar, they can also hide their true power. One example is the Amazon Echo. The smart speakers/voice assistants/listening devices can provide basic functions such as provide you with the weather forecast or provide last night’s sports scores - things I previously got from my newspaper or television, then more recently from my smart phone, I now can get from my Echo speakers in our house. I also use Echo to call family members in different rooms and play music. The technology is new, but still had a familiar feel to it.
These familiarity at the outset bred comfort and helped drive adoption of our Echo speakers, but it also limited my perception of its possibilities. It was my youngest daughter Sienna who expanded my appreciation for what some more advanced applications were. While still in elementary school, she would often have a wide-ranging dialogue with her Echo. In addition to making calls and playing music, Sienna would ask her Echo to tell her stories, provide jokes, and even give her ideas for pranks she could play on us. I only learned about this last feature when Sienna helpfully often to hang up my clothes in my bedroom. I later found several items taped to the wall “hanging” for me while she laughed endlessly.
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Advantages of having a lack of work experience
Amazon has invested heavily in both developing the Alexa voice intelligence software and the Echo smart speakers as well as in marketing campaigns highlighting use cases, including the “Baldwin Bowl” ad featuring multiple celebrities. Amazon prints examples of questions Alexa can answer on its packages and its screen savers on Prime Video, among other locations. These marketing campaigns help to educate consumers and guide them to utilize increasingly more advanced use cases for their Echo speakers. One example is the Alexa Guard home security product, which uses the smart speakers to provide alerts on home activity when the owner is away and turn on lights remotely to deter potential intruders.
Amazon has invested heavily in educating Echo customers and prospective buyers on how the technology can benefit them. However, there is no substitute for hands-on experience. In many cases, younger people can more quickly stumble upon the vast possibilities that new technology provides simply by exploring on their own. Through questions serious and silly, Sienna and many other young people have grown to rely on Alexa and understand the power that it provides through the Echo smart speakers. Children, teens, and younger adults have fewer preconceived notions about how technology should interact with their environment and be used. This lack of experience is a positive: younger generations are more open to possibilities inherent in newer tools. As they gain experience using newer technologies and avoiding interactions with outdated tools such as rotary phones, younger people gain experience and a leg up on the adoption of the technologies that will shape our future.
Valuing all voices to chart your innovation course
What does this mean for your organization? Traditionally, many firms historically have operated on what I describe as an “apprenticeship” model. New employees were trained both through formal classes and informal mentoring on the job. Some of the information that was passed down was through documentation; much was passed along as tacit knowledge. The basic idea is that experienced workers were the most productive and needed to get newer employees “up to speed” on the relevant concepts, processes, and systems needed to achieve mastery in a particular job.
One challenge that this traditional approach poses is the “gate agent problem”: employees that are more tenured in their roles can become narrow in thinking about their job. This can come from:
the weight of experience (“we’ve always done it this way”)
the power of experience (“I have specialized knowledge that you don’t”)
resting on past successes (“why fix what isn’t broken”)
Leaders should seek to balance the benefits of experience in a given role or within the organization with the fresh perspectives that newer employees can bring. Even young employees who are recent hires have valuable experiences they can leverage to benefit the firm. This could be unique and/or in depth uses of new and emerging technologies, exposure to newer market and societal trends, and access to peers and outsiders who are not limited in their concept of what success is driven by in a given role or at a particular company. When determining the role that machines and people should play at your firm moving forward, younger employees may have a clearer view.
While working at a mid-sized insurance carrier a few years ago, a summer intern on my team, Alex, had just completed her freshman year of college. While Alex had limited exposure to insurance, she had been part of the blockchain club at her school and had months of hands-on experience exploring this new technology. Out of our roughly 1,600 employees, I would have bet money that Alex knew more about blockchain than any one of them. We asked Alex during her summer internship to help us devise a corporate blockchain strategy. It may have seemed a stretch to ask this of a 19-year old, but Alex was more qualified than anyone else at the organization and her work provided a good jumping off point for further exploration of blockchain use cases and engagement with consultants and other experts.
Bottom line: when it comes to the adoption of new and emerging technologies to advance your organization, it isn’t always the more tenured people at your firm that are in the best position to see the full set of possibilities. Respecting the experiences of newer employees and valuing their perspective may be challenging for organizations stacked with long-tenured employees, but it is vital. Find ways to ensure everyone has a forum to share their knowledge and perspective, and learn to blend these strengths into a strategic plan that propels your organization forward into the future.
What does the generational mix of talent look like at your organization? Is there a balance of power between long-tenured “lifers” and newer employees? How well does your organization evaluate emerging technologies and identify opportunities? Does your firm generally look at newer technologies simply as a replacement to outdated tech or do you push the boundaries of what new possibilities are now available? What is the role of innovation, IT, and business units with respect to identifying and evaluating cutting edge technologies? How do newer technologies become part of your strategic roadmap as a key enabler?