Gestalt: For What It's Worth

When baby boomers came of age there were less than a dozen broadcast stations, and color was a novelty. Shows aired at prescribed times, replay meant waiting months or years, if at all; and, then, one had to watch a whole re-broadcast, not just the parts one wanted. The only way to avoid a TV commercial was to leave the room.

The only way to listen to music was to buy it in a store, pay for an entire album (a round one made of vinyl) regardless of which songs one liked, or listen on the radio to what someone else liked. Finding information meant going physically to a library and wading through books and documents others brought out to you. A "facebook" was a hard-copy collection of photos to facilitate knowing who existed and looked good, with no way to communicate. A phone call to the UK could cost $200 for three minutes. There were no cell phones. There was no e-mail - not even faxes. There were computers, though. You were lucky if they fit in a single room and could do simple calculations.

Compare this to the generation coming of age today:

They never knew a world where they couldn't find virtually any video (or part of a video) when and how they wanted it through their television or PC. In fact, to many the PC is their "television." Few watch any advertising at all unless they find something funny or relevant enough to seek out. Or they want to make fun of it.

They barely know what it means to buy "physical" music, are agnostic toward albums, and buy/share/take what they want when they want it with the click of the mouse. On devices the size of a matchbook, they have at their fingertips thousands of songs and/or hundred of videos on their terms. They make stars of unknowns with their own choices. Through search, they have access to information that dwarfs all the museums of the world combined. They presume that long-distance calling is free, or unlimited for a few dollars a month. They all have cell phones for which voice is only one application, as they share information, photos, video, and transact as a total extension of their online behaviors.

Now you all know this. But it is stark when you stare at these differences. What is lost is that virtually all the major media companies today are run by the former generation trying to speak to, communicate with, and build products or build business models for the latter.

Should it be an enormous surprise that Baby Boomer media titans come up with making all their video programming available on-demand, while at the same time stopping users from skipping ads? Should we be shocked when one mogul declared the iPhone brilliant design but asked who would ever watch a full-length movie on it? Are we really unclear as to why major music companies try to put kids in jail and let Rhapsody turn potential thieves into loyal customers? Shall we rage against the gods when Google, YouTube, Facebook and thousands of other innovations most Boomers have never heard of are created by their children?

On one level, while the speed, velocity and power of technological innovation and execution is unprecedented, the challenge of one generation speaking to the next is not. The radio, pre-air travel, highly censored film/video, tie-wearing World War II generation had a lot to take on with rock and roll, free love, and the television-devouring Boomers they sired. The bankruptcy courts were filled with companies that couldn't adjust.

I think the single most important attribute for executives to have in times of turbulent change is often least found in the executive suites: humility. It takes a lot of backbone and steely guts to admit knowing what you don't know, separating it from what you do know, and believing that the world has changed in significant ways one doesn't always "get" and may never understand. This means surrounding oneself not primarily with the ladder-climbing corporate suits, but with innovators from the generation raised knowing nothing else than the world today.

I don't know a Boomer executive who isn't addicted to their PDA or iPod - they just need to make sure they don't confuse their own use of the devices with that of a generation that is now changing all the rules because they were raised without any rules. That, or maybe they should just download Buffalo Springfield from iTunes: "Stop, children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down."

Christopher M. Schroeder is CEO and president of The HealthCentral Network, Inc. (

Next story loading loading..