Stop the Generation XYZ baloney!

Product/service developers and marketers—listen up!

Google “Generation X’ and you’ll get over 300 million results.

I think this way of thinking about people is nonsense. And so does Clay Shirky.

“One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X, while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both differ innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.”
—Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Shirky goes on to say that those who like to dramatize these generational differences are making a fundamental attribution error; mistaking new behavior for some kind of change in human nature rather than a change in opportunity. Much of the “difference” between “generations” is in fact caused by a change in that generation’s environment or circumstances.

So.

Rather than start with supposed generational differences, dig deeper into the causes for changes in behavior. Instead of marketing driven by statistical analyses of differences in behavior, concentrate on understanding why behaviors have changed. (Or haven’t.)

Then develop your products, services, and marketing around your understanding of relevant human behavior and the changing environment.

Remember, people don’t change that fast. But their environment and circumstances can.

That’s what you should focus on.


P.S. If you haven’t already, read Switch by the Heath brothers for a great practical approach to changing people’s behavior.

The third way to make something happen

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More value can be gotten out of voluntary participation than anyone previously imagined, thanks to improvements in our ability to connect with one another and improvements in our imagination of what is possible from such participation.
Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky

In his thought-provoking book, Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky reminds us that, until recently, most of the discussion about how to make things happen has focused on two seemingly competing mechanisms.

Private production
The first way to make things happen is private production, where something gets done when the cost of doing it is less than what the doers believe the result will be worth. This is how many consumer products and services are created.

Public production
The second way to make things happen is public production, where a society decides that something is worth doing for the common good. An example is the provision of universal health care by a government for its citizens.

There is a third way to make something happen.

Social production is the third way to make something happen
Social production, as Shirky describes it, is the creation of value by a group for its members, using neither price signals nor managerial oversight to coordinate participants’ efforts. Social production occurs because a group’s members derive benefit from the results of their shared work, and often through their enjoyment of community during the process.

Until recently, social production was limited in scale: Shirky gives picnics and bowling leagues as examples. What has changed is that internet technologies now give us inexpensive and effective means for group coordination and cooperation. This allows us to aggregate the free time of many people in ad hoc groups that come together for mutual benefit to work on “tasks we find interesting, important, or urgent”. Examples of social production include Wikipedia, Linux, and countless community-run online forums.

How social production will impact meeting design
The rise of social production is important for events such as meetings and conferences, because the collective knowledge and experience of peer groups normally rivals or surpasses, the knowledge and experience of any one “expert”. When an audience collectively knows more than the presenter at the front of the room (and I’d argue that today this is true more often than not), the question naturally arises: are standard presentations the best way to use attendees’ time?

Traditional conference culture restricts the provider of session content to presenters. Social production culture, on the other hand, supports appropriate openness, sharing, and participation as a norm. When events adopt a social production culture, attendees become participants, involved not only in their own learning but also in the learning of their peers. Everyone benefits from the increased pool of resources, and the opportunity to shape what happens during the event. This adds real value to each attendee’s experience and also to the event’s civic value, i.e. the effect of the event on the world outside it.

As social production becomes an increasingly common way to create value, we need to recognize and acknowledge its ramifications for events. Attendees are going to be less willing to put up with conferences that are designed to make money for the organizers or put on as a public service. Instead, they will be attracted to events where they can participate in and shape what happens.

What are you doing to facilitate social production at your events?

Photo attribution: Flickr user stuckincustoms