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How the Youth Can Make a Difference: Reflections of an IBM Millennial from the Next Gen Lab

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By Jing Sun (7 min read)

I admit I sometimes have issues with procrastination. But a few weeks have passed and I still cannot give up the thought to share the fantastic experience I had in Singapore. Just a few weeks ago, I was surprised to receive an invitation from IBM Millennial Corps to attend the Next Gen Lab in Singapore on Dec 2018. I spent over one hour to fill in the application, proofread three times, submitted, and selected! After a long and complicated visa application, the business visa arrived in my inbox just one day before my planned departure! There is an old saying in China: “Nothing good comes easily”, which is the best summary of this trip, because the moment of boarding the flight marks the very beginning of something exciting.

The schedule of the Next Gen Lab is tight, and the majority of the schedule was dedicated to a Design Thinking workshop with one of IBM’s local clients, a large Singapore finance company. The most beautiful part of this event is that it is a collaboration with around 40 IBMers from 15 different countries – with diverse cultural backgrounds, diverse job roles, and diverse thinking patterns, truly everything is about diversity.

In three short days, we pushed ourselves to switch to a consultant role and quickly get familiar with the industry background. Our extraordinary facilitator Joshua Taylor inspired us to think from the perspective of users: think out of the box, and think wild. After a 3-day intensive brainstorm and research, six groups presented their amazing ideas to the clients where we provided solutions as “ONE IBM”.

Diversity makes creativity possible, and Inclusion determines how much a company can harness from the creativity.

We are from 15 countries, representing different cultures; but more than that, we also have a diversity of life experiences and thinking patterns. In team discussions, for example, every team member shared their own experience with banks in their home countries, which helped everyone understand life in other countries (much more authentic than those descriptions on textbooks, I bet), and inspired many wild ideas. We also leveraged our diverse professional backgrounds to input different expertise and mindset to put together our presentation.

Why are we so passionate about investing so much energy and time to create? Because we all believe it is a safe and open environment, and that our company and our clients value our voice.

My Key Takeaways

“Seeking harmony, but not uniformity” is another my favorite part of working at IBM.

As a millennial, I would like to share key learnings on how to create an inclusive and engaging culture, especially for this young generation:

  • Build up direct communication channels with leadership, and value our voice.

Many types of research have used ‘self-centered’ to describe millennials, but many people misunderstand this. For millennials, it is not about ‘selfishness’, but about self-value. We believe we have the capability to make a difference, and we hope our voices are heard and valued. One impressive part of the NextGen Lab is the talk with Harriet Green, IBM General Manager for the Asia Pacific. As an executive, she committed some time to spend with us, listen to our opinions on how IBM can embrace the millennial mindset, and encourage us to take actions and make some changes. It is not just ‘lip service’, as we all saw her strong support for advancing millennial development. Nothing can be more encouraging than the solid support and recognition from leadership!

  • Create a safe internal entrepreneur environment.

We are growing in a fast-changing world, and we are witnessing various businesses prosper and decline. Born in such era, we are a generation who dare to think and try. However, not everyone can afford to start a business, but everyone has creative wild ideas. So, how? Allow us to create within the company. It may not be something big, but with this mechanism, we are delivering value.

Take this design thinking workshop as an example, not everyone is a consultant in this team, but Next Gen Lab is a platform where our expertise is trusted, and mistakes are allowed. We iterated, polished, and improved, and finally came to some deliverables which are of value to clients. Another example is the Cognitive Build Campaign at IBM, it is an internal kick-starter for projects to use Watson in new and different ways. With budget support, some creative ideas have come into reality.

  • Nurture cross-generation collaboration.

This Next Gen Lab is not limited to millennials, but instead, there are also some Gen X members. Different generations have different worldviews, and with collaboration, cross-generational misunderstanding is being eliminated, skills are exchanged, and the final deliverable is polished to meet the needs of user communities. Cross-generation collaboration is benefiting not only millennials but other generations. It is a way of learning, and a way to build up the network.

  • Trust researches? Why not just talk to us instead.

“What are the typical characteristics of millennials?”, “How to motivate millennial employees”, “10 Facts about the millennial…” Sound familiar? Such titles have been hot topics after millennials gradually entered the job market. But, wait, they are not a bible, and they are not applied to every single millennial living in different countries, working in different industries, taking different job roles… and comparing us in our 20s or early 30s, with other age groups is not fair. Who knows what we will be like when we are of their age? If you want to understand the real world of the millennial, take some time to observe, or just directly talk with millennial employees around. I believe you will get insights that are different from those on so-called “Millennial Research”.

  • Don’t hesitate to expose us to challenges. We can handle it.

Challenges will make us feel a strong sense of value and achievement. During the three days of Next Gen Lab, we had to work in an English-speaking environment. For many of us whose native language is not English, it is terrifying to listen to English with various accents and discuss or present in English. Besides, we had to force ourselves to quickly learn the background of the banking industry, end-user demographics, and then organize them into deliverable ideas. But we all made it! And faced with such a challenging situation, no one complained, and we all regarded it as an exciting challenge as a way to prove our capabilities. When the company forces us to push the boundaries, we just accept the challenge, and we grow!


My advice to the young professionals

Also, for young early professionals like me, I would also like to share some reflections, though I am also still making an effort to fulfill some of the points below:

  • Always dare to get out of your comfort zone – Never be satisfied with current situations, even though it can be suffering at the beginning.
  • Keep learning new things – even if the knowledge you will gain is not directly related to your routine job. For example, learn a different language, learn to code using Python, learn to build a simple chat bot…someday, you will be grateful that you have mastered such skills.
  • If you have opportunities, travel abroad, and talk with natives. You will find that the world is different from what you’ve learned from books. I earned my bachelor degree in Business School in the Renmin University of China, and until now, I totally believe in the motto of the Business School: China Root, Global Reach.
  • Always ask whenever you don’t understand. Ask your peers, ask your managers, ask your friends from other countries…It is not shameful to ask, we are all learning, and through asking, you are building a closer relationship with people who are asked.
  • Seek to build your network in every event – and use some ‘tricks’ to advance the network to a more personal one. Everyone you meet could be an important network resource for you. In the workplace, having a more personal relationship with your colleagues can save a lot of effort when dealing with some work. For example, have some lunch chats, or bring small gifts when appropriate. These methods can help to make your network relationship stronger and more personal.
  • Be visible, and don’t hesitate to show and tell. Presentation and story-telling skill are one of the most crucial skills in the workplace today. Actively take the role to present, and you will be recognized by more people.
  • Trust yourself – you are stronger than you think.

How about you, what would be your top suggestions for millennial employees?

About the Author:

Jing Sun is a Global Diversity Partner at IBM, Program Manager of Out Role Model Program. This blog originally appeared on the Jing Sun’s LinkedIn Pulse.

IBM offices in Asian countries are actively hiring technical and business professionals. If you wish to get received updates on IBM news and opportunities, join the IBM Talent Network.

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