Changing the World

At an IT conference in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, an IBM executive gave a presentation in which she made an intriguing observation about people in their late teens and early twenties.

"They want to change the world," she said. "They're not as much interested in 'I'm going to make a whole lot of money.' Most of them want to make a difference. And we as IT professionals can show them how IT can help them change the world."

Hold that thought.

Four days earlier, a college softball game was under way in Ellensburg, Wash., where the Central Washington University Wildcats were hosting the Western Oregon University Wolves. Western Oregon senior Sara Tucholsky brought her teammates to their feet when, in the top of the second inning, she hit the first home run of her high school and college careers.

When Tucholsky rounded first base, she realized she'd missed the bag, so she turned back to touch it. In the process, she injured her right knee so severely that she collapsed to the ground and was practically unable to move. Since Tucholsky would be called out if any of her teammates touched her, the Western Oregon coach appeared to have no option but to send in a pinch runner, which would nullify the homer and cause the hit to be scored as a single.

That's when Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman spoke up. She asked if she and her teammates could help Tucholsky around the bases. The umpires said there was no rule in the books to prohibit it, so Holtman and Central Washington shortstop Liz Wallace picked Tucholsky up and carried her around the bases, enabling her to touch each bag and home plate with her good leg. It was a three-run homer, and Western Oregon went on to win the game, 4-2.

And it wasn't just any game. It was an NCAA Division II playoff game, and Central Washington desperately needed a win after falling two games behind Western Oregon. But that's not what mattered most to Holtman and her teammates. What mattered most to them was that their opponent got the home run she deserved.

That's the story that popped into my mind when the IBM executive — Catherine Lasser, vice president of industry solutions and emerging business at IBM Research — spoke of how established professionals can show our young people how to change the world.

I had to smile. The fact is, our young people aren't waiting for us to show them. They have different priorities, different expectations and different values that are already changing the world. It's more helpful to recognize that the generation holding most corporate leadership positions today has a lot to learn from the fresh concepts that are being introduced by the generation that's now entering the workforce. The reason is simple: Those are the concepts that will serve as the truest agents of change.

But Lasser did provide some valuable insights, especially when she spoke of the work IBM is doing to study how popular multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft can help advance the goals of corporate IT.

"What's interesting," Lasser said of the gaming phenomenon, "is that leaders emerge."

I was reminded of that observation when I read Kathleen Melymuka's interview with Harvard Business Review author Byron Reeves in this week's print issue (page 30). Reeves, co-founder of a company called Seriosity that develops enterprise software inspired by games like World of Warcraft, spoke about a Seriosity study that was commissioned by IBM. Entirely coincidentally, the findings helped explain Lasser's point.

"The most interesting [conclusion] is that leadership in these games has less to do with the special qualities of the person doing the leading than with the environment itself," Reeves said. "A lot of people can be leaders when there's an environment that's conducive to making it happen."

Perhaps we should just concentrate on providing the right environment and let young leaders like Holtman take it from there. Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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