When the subject of millennial generation workers comes up, some employers seem as befuddled as Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride. Other simply scratch their heads and mutter the following question: What do millennials want?

If they are looking for the key to solving this puzzle, they might be looking for a very long time, according to Timothy Geisert, CMO of Kenexa, an IBM Company now known as IBM Smarter Workforce. During this week’s Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium produced by WTN Media, Geisert explained why the American workforce is only going to become more dynamic, and millennials already are among the more influential dynamos.

The title of his keynote presentation summed it up: “What’s Up Is Down and What’s Down is Up In the Workforce.” He specifically addressed a so-called next generation workforce that has the requisite technology tools and social attitudes to continually disrupt the labor market.

As a result, the employer-employee compact is being re-written on the fly. Instead of treating employees as a homogeneous group, organizations must become more granular and reach down to the individual level.

The “Our Company” ExperienceGeisert has spent most of his career in marketing, and he believes people in marketing have spoiled the workforce with individually targeted advertising pitches. What’s happening in the consumer world is happening on a parallel track in the employer’s world, especially with the younger generation, as individual experience takes precedence.

One unintended consequence of this is that we live in one of the most disruptive times for the workforce, with misleadingly high expectations of what to expect from a job. “Our expectations as consumers have changed,” Geisert noted. “It’s not about the brand anymore. It’s about the experience.”

Business managers, including CIOs, must think more broadly about what their employees experience on the job. Many will be in denial and run the risk of overestimating how positive that experience is, but consider the following metric from IBM research: 71% of CEOs surveyed cited human capital as their greatest source of sustained economic value.

“It’s also the most elusive. It’s also the most changing,” Geisert noted.

There also is huge opportunity in it for organizations that want to differentiate themselves in terms of attraction and retention. To make it less like herding cats, Geisert recommends walking down to the head of marketing, asking what the marketing department has done to improve the customer experience, and see if you can apply it to employees.

“If you’re in a company, one of your best resources to figure out to improve the work experience is go talk to your marketing people,” he said. “They use the same, exact tools that you [in IT] use, only to figure out how to market, so direct those tools toward your employees. How do they do surveys? What kinds of questions do they ask? How do we package things? What has worked, and what hasn’t worked? How do we make that connection?”

When considering how “the experience” influences your approach to managing, also take the time to actually talk to employees under your supervision. Geisert once approached a millennial employee — to protect the innocent, we’ll call him Terry — and asked for advice about how to manage him. Terry has a strong creative mind, but he was one of the most indignant young people Geisert had ever met. The dude had such a `tude that when Geisert told him that he didn’t know how to manage him, he replied: “Then don’t.”

After that prickly preliminary, Geisert urged Terry to coach him about how he’d like to be managed. Terry obliged, telling Geisert that he only wanted to things from him: “Tell me where we’re going, and then help me push things out of the way so that we all can get there.”

That told Geiser to focus on setting a clear, attainable vision, and communicating it to his staff. Now, the two regularly meet so that Terry can keep Geisert informed about what’s on the mind of other 20-something employees. “We’ve been doing this for three years now,” Geisert said. “Terry is a very powerful force in the culture.

“His generation taught me how to be a different manager.”

Some of Geisert’s broader advice is to eliminate organizational hierarchies by implementing tools that produce the collective intelligence of an organization. Use social networks, especially those that create constant collaboration, to foster what he calls “radical transparency” across departments, and don’t worry about the answers you might get about your company’s experience. You don’t learn if you don’t ask.

With distrust in politicians and corporate power centers at an all-time high, especially among the millennials, don’t have your CEO do the “welcome to the company” video on the company website. Have the rank and file welcome people to the organization and offer testimony to it as a quality workplace.

Don’t be afraid to break off your more creative, innovative employees from the pack. Not everyone has the time or skillset for this, so establish your company’s version of Skunk Works, the legendary unit within Lockeed Martin that was allowed to innovate.

Use techniques like onboarding, including via social technologies and mobile solutions, to improve the employee experience during the critical first 30 to 60 days of employment.

And don’t view the process with dread. Said Geisert: “Some of the most fun conversations I’ve had have been around how do we change our experience here?”

Dynamic era

The workforce dynamics described above will only become more intense as technology continues to increase the speed at which people communicate and connect. Word gets out on social media, and it’s in a company’s best interests to turn their employees into advocates, no matter how they choose to pass the word.

In addition, insight on human behavior is greater than it’s ever been. Geisert says we have reached a point where we know what makes people good at what they do, individually and as a group.

This is where business analytics, and the ability to ask the right questions, comes in. The combination of technology and behavioral knowledge has produced mounds of data regarding human behavior and tendencies, and it can be analyzed to predict behavior, identify talent, and tailor business processes and policies to the individual.

Geisert predicts that redefining employee retention into employee engagement will become a top priority. “Employees are no longer looking for a career, they are looking for an experience,” he stated. “This younger generation has got this on steroids.”

Contributing writer Joe Vanden Plas is editorial director of In Business magazine in Madison.