Skip to main content

Around the office, you may have noticed that your twentysomething employees need feedback - plenty of it and seemingly all the time.

It's part of the mindset of the Net Generation - those under 30 just entering or relatively new to the work force, who have grown up digital.

Since childhood, they've been immersed in digital technology - the Internet, mobile phones and social networks, often all running at the same time.

This digital technology is, at its very core, interactive, and it has shaped the Net Generation's ways of doing things.

They've grown up connected. So they expect a two-way conversation, not a lecture from a parent, teacher or employer. And they're used to getting constant and quick feedback about everything - their homework, the gadget they want to buy, and, now, their job.

Their need for constant reassurance can be infuriating to boomer bosses, who are more used to that human resources relic, the annual performance review. It's supposed to be an objective way to assess performance on a once-a-year basis. But while still a fixture of the corporate world, it's routinely criticized by experts.

There are many reasons why. For starters, it's not that objective, as anyone who has seen a string of As handed out to mediocre performers can attest. And the boss's pronouncements are often based on a standard evaluation form, which doesn't offer much opportunity for customization.

The traditional performance evaluation also fails to deliver what employees want (constant, timely feedback) and what motivates them (getting better, which is hard to do when you only hear how you're doing once a year).

The objectives that bosses and employees agree on may seem like easy wins. But life changes, the objectives may lose their relevancy and the right thing to do may actually be inconsistent with the objectives.

What's more, appraisals designed to measure an individual can undermine the effectiveness of the group; people rewarded for individual performance share knowledge and information with others much less than those rewarded for group performance.

The annual appraisal makes even less sense for the Net Generation.

It's one-way communication - boss to employee - that usually ignores the employee's wishes and desires. It happens once a year - long after the performance took place. And it rewards or punishes individual performance - not the collaboration that Net Geners treasure.

So how to give feedback to a generation that has an insatiable desire for it, in a way that makes sense?

One idea comes from a new Toronto company called Rypple that's stuffed with Net Geners. It's created a Web-based service by the same name that is intended to replace the performance review.

It works like this: Instead of waiting an entire year to find out what managers think of them, employees choose some advisers. They could be mentors, co-workers, managers, clients or friends.

Whenever they want, they can call on these trusted advisers to offer instant feedback on specific and pointed questions: How am I doing at financial modelling? Did I wear the proper shoes at the retreat last week? What can I do to make myself more effective at my job?

The advisers can respond quickly, and anonymously. "The point is to make it easy to give honest feedback," says Rypple co-chief executive officer Daniel Debow.

In essence, it's a real-time and just-in-time performance review driven by the employees themselves, who don't have to wait for the boss to dole it out at the appointed time.

Some boomers may wonder whether Rypple will make their inboxes overflow with requests for advice, and what kind of time it will take out of their schedules to reply.

But Mr. Debow says that responses should only take a couple of minutes - and managers may stop worrying about an influx if they see Net Geners using their answers to improve their performance faster than ever before.

That's because such a feedback method satisfies Net Geners' need for speed and their desire to customize, by allowing them to ask whatever they want whenever they want. This can be a powerful way to motivate young people.

Rypple may be the first service of its kind but it's a prime example of what should be the new way to develop employees.

Performance reviews are a key fixture of the old way of managing, which could be summed up as: recruit, train, supervise and retain.

The new credo for managing Net Geners should be more collaborative, and can be summed up as: initiate, engage, collaborate and evolve.

Don't just recruit: Initiate relationships. Instead of simply going after employees, companies should think about initiating relationships with young people at an early age, using social networks whenever possible.

Don't just train. Engage. Instead of holding training sessions separate from work, companies should increase the learning content in work, making learning happen on the job. For example, encourage employees to blog as a way of deepening their thoughts.

Don't just supervise. Collaborate. Instead of overseeing employees with feedback that comes once a year, employers should encourage employees to ask for comments and advice constantly, whenever and as often as they need and desire it.

Don't just retain. Evolve. Instead of worrying about keeping people in the short term, employers should focus more on building lifelong relationships with them.

Ideas like Rypple respond to the new credo, a whole new way to manage, inspired by the newest employees, and the kind of feedback they need to succeed.

Don Tapscott is a Toronto-based author, consultant and speaker, and chairman of Texas-based think tank nGenera Insight. His latest book is Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation

is Changing your World.