Retaining Millennials — Lessons from Georgia Tech’s Invention Studio

Craig Forest GaTechStudent/Prototyping Instructor (PI) and Craig Forest, Associate Professor, School of ME, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, GA, in the woodshop 

One of the questions that’s been getting batted around a lot is ‘how do we recruit technical Millennials, and once they’re recruited, how do we keep them?’  The Millennial Generation is generally assumed to have been born between the late ’80s and the early ’00s.  Readers of this blog will hopefully not be surprised to hear me be a bit skeptical toward the idea of a Millennial Generation.  They are sentient, evolutionary actors like all other humans in history, and subject to the same dynamics as all others.  And, of course, that would be true.

At the same time, the world of culture and externalities does produce different v-Meme spectra as we evolve as societies.  It may not be particularly useful to say things like ‘Millennials are just selfish’ — that’s branding a particular characteristic that more than likely reflects the writer’s own self-projection.  And the studies were likely done when the Millennials were mostly teenagers.  What teenagers aren’t self-centered?  Some of the conclusions are more in line with where people are age-wise developmentally than any deep insight.

But it is useful to consider how societies evolve empathetically in aggregate.  We don’t have the same v-Meme set as Genghis Khan’s armies, and we can’t go back without serious psychopathic devolution.  Subject of a future post — similar to expert knowledge, societies as a whole down convert more complex empathetic behavior into the culture and expected automatic/limbic thought processes.  And then there’s the whole issue of epigenetic transfer as well — which has ‘hot button issue’ written all over it.  But I digress.

The point of all of this is that Millennials can indeed be a valid label, if one considers it from a v-Meme spectra perspective.  What that means is that the level of activation of the six basic v-Memes — from Survival to Communitarian — can vary from past generations (Boomers, Generation X, and such.)  Older keepers of the keys for organizations-in-place can start the process of adapting work processes and environments to accommodate the different evolved empathetic mindsets of those that follow.

Don’t think that this means throwing out all past organizational knowledge.  In the case of large Legalistic/Performance v-Meme organizations like Boeing, there will always be a need for Reliability in design, and the appropriate scaffolding that will enable this.  The need for extensive certification processes, as well as back-and-forth between design engineers, manufacturing engineers and the FAA isn’t going to go away if we don’t want airliners to fall out of the sky. But the expansion of communication, sharing of information, and speed-up of the innovation cycle has the potential for much more revolutionary approaches to flight.

Ploughing throw all the Millennial research, for me, is pretty dull.  First off, it’s all over the map.  Millennials are alternately more selfish and narcissistic, or more community-oriented and social-change conscious.  It depends on who you ask.

It’s time for a different hypothesis — one v-Meme-centered.  Let’s assume that Millennials are part of a pattern of social/relational empathetic evolution, as all stable generations before them have been.  We can determine how this might be the case by looking at the balance of their externally defined relationships that matter, as compared to their independently generated relationships. Here, the data is easy to find and plentiful.  Add in their communication patterns — duplex vs. simplex — and we can hypothesize how their brains might actually work.  Millennials are most likely to talk to their parents via cell phone at least 1.5 times/day.  They own computers and all different types of tech.  They text message constantly.  They get their empathetic needs met differently, with less actual presence and more telepresence, like social media/Instagram/Facebook.  The whole of their communication space is duplex, with very little one-way transmission.  I see this in my own teenagers.  Mark Prensky coined the term digital native to describe them.  They are also more open to change than previous generations — not surprising, since many of their conceptualizations are data-driven.  And money matters less.

What that means, not surprisingly, is that they are less status-conscious.  With the ability to reach out to others in diverse communities of interest, there aren’t any single icons of status, because that depends on your own personal preference.  Not surprisingly, with diffuse networks, driven by specific interests, Authoritarian and Legalistic v-Memes are in decline, while Performance/Goal-Oriented v-Memes and Communitarian data processing are ascendant. Millennials are more connected informationally with each other, making them better at rational empathy, even if, with less face-to-face contact, their emotional empathetic skills are less developed.  The question that drops out of this for employers is how to make the Real World at least as interesting topically, and more enriching emotionally as their own, created virtual one.

One answer to this question can be found in a creation of my good friend, Professor Craig Forest at Georgia Tech.  Called the Invention Studio, it is a leader in the Makerspace movement, which in the academy is an attempt to shift students to more studio-based learning.  Located organizationally under the George Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering — one of the largest mechanical engineering departments in the world numerically — the Invention Studio was founded in 2009.  “I gave the key to the first and only room to 10 students who had volunteered because they already knew how to use the machine shop, and their volunteering guaranteed further access for their senior design process.  But what happened instead was they began to care about it as their own and recruited new users.  They began to hang out there on the couches and it became a place they called home.”

Here’s a video about the Invention Studio that’s worth the two minutes to orient yourself.

Not surprisingly, the video is focused on the capabilities and projects emerging from the Invention Studio — a direct manifestation of the Performance/Goal-Oriented v-Meme the students are growing into, out of the Legalistic Authoritarianism of university culture, which is just as strong at Georgia Tech as it is in any other institution — albeit an extremely well-funded one.  Social/relational structure is still, at some level, destiny.  The Invention Studio fills in what’s missing in the social environment, creating a testbed for evolving students’ empathetic development.

I met Craig at the 2014 Capstone Design Conference when he approached me after a workshop I was giving on managing relational dynamics.  We struck up a friendship that day.  As a result, I had the pleasure of visiting Craig’s rapidly expanding and vibrant operation just last week.  It is an energetic, friendly and positive environment, and a true empathetic growth accelerator for all the students.  Craig implicitly started it with the principles of Servant Leadership 2.0 in mind, with that small group of students.  In our conversations, he pointed out another student leader, Chris Quintero, who embodied the same Servant Leadership 2.0 skills.  “Chris could communicate the values of the new club and their mission and also get down to the details realizing the need for, and then going out and finding and buying t-shirts, power tools or pizza – whatever was needed.  He provided a single contact for me – he requested the first Makerbot.  So all I had to do was make it rain.”

From a physical infrastructure viewpoint, the Invention Studio is well-equipped.  For 3-D printing alone (only one part of a series of dedicated rooms) there are 30 consumer-grade printers, and 10 professional printers that run an average of 20 hrs./day.  Heavy use dictates that they are constantly being rebuilt by student volunteers.  The Studio itself is run by approximately 80 Prototyping Instructors (PIs), servicing about 1000-2000 students/month with woodworking, 3D printing, metalworking, electrical circuit construction and other modes.  Students work and participate in the Invention Studio for free.  Rapid prototyping is free.  Materials are paid for by a tech fee and revenues from Capstone Design.  But students don’t mindlessly exploit the resources, nor waste.  Their system is self-monitoring and self-regulating, through the efforts of the PIs.  There’s all the details here if you need them.  But those are surface-level.

Craig Forest GaTech 3D Printers

Monitoring the bank of 3D printers

What’s more fascinating in the context of this blog is to observe the social evolution of the space.  Started by a Servant Leader 2.0 (Craig) and fractalized down to the student level (Chris), the origination culture of the space was established high up on the Spiral, with strong Guiding Principles with Bodhisattva leanings.  Both individuals were in it to serve and learn.  Craig made the comment that the most important part of the Invention Studio is the couches, which are really out in an alcove attached to the main hall, where students talk, eat, and sleep.  Openness is written into the v-MemeNA.  If the PIs see someone shrinking back, looking confused, they make it a point to help that person.  And though original recruitment of PIs was founded on potentially selfish interest — access to the tools was primary — the community rapidly evolved around shared interest and competent.  A fantastic example of an empathetic ladder.

One of the more fascinating aspects from my observation was the extremely high levels of social skills among the students I talked to.  Ranging from full-on Geek to more average expectations, the communication style of all the young people was direct, empathetic and friendly.  For a profession known for having more than its fair share of folks on the Asperger’s Scale, the Invention Studio is a fantastic accelerator and integrator for young people that normally would have a tough time connecting in the more rigid, status-conscious world of fraternities and sororities.

As the Invention Studio has grown, the need for structured leadership has also grown.  This has been requested by the students — a profound sign of emergence.  At what I have found to be natural breakpoints — approximately 80 PIs — the PIs themselves self-organized to elect a servant leader president.  One of the topics Craig and I discussed was the need to make explicit the Guiding Principles that are woven through the fabric of the organization, to better insure that the service principles are not lost to necessary algorithmic rule scaffolding.  Maintaining an environment based on larger shared heuristics can be challenging, because there will be some best practices that are discovered, and those will create natural social pressures for more algorithmic thinking. I’m confident that Craig and his students will navigate these waters successfully.  We discussed making formal and informal relationship maps, posting these on the walls so students could become explicitly aware of both the declared structure of the organization, as well as acceptable information pathways that have already been created by students.  I have confidence that these too, will become naturally emergent as needs arise.

What’s can we learn from the Invention Studio as far as keeping Millennials engaged and involved?  A big part of it is filling in the need for Millennials to grow in emotional empathy while being engaged with some level of autonomy with others.  Meeting the Vice-President of Operations who just flew in from the coast isn’t going to provide much motivation to them.  Title-based leadership without competency just isn’t going to work with the majority.  One of the key takeaways is how Craig uses his Millennials to manage and suggest new tech, while operating underneath a broader social umbrella.  This is a technique I use as well in the Industrial Design Clinic.  Students are much more likely to be tuned into new technology, so when they suggest stuff, if we can afford it, we buy it.  That way, individuals can feel directly valued for their unique skills, while working in an evolved social environment that inherently builds social competencies they may not have been exposed to.

Part of it also means management has to change.  Receptivity to new ways of working that are familiar to Millennials, but not so much to older employees, such as more complex on-line environments, is going to be important.  In the Invention Studio, students can queue 3-D printing jobs from across the university.  There’s no requirement to show up and drop the cards in the card reader.  And social spaces need to be friendly and accessible.  Our organizations have to continue to evolve — because through that process of v-Meme downconversion, it’s just expected that we’re going to start at a higher level.

It’s really not that hard.  And as I continue exploring this space, I’ll post.




2 thoughts on “Retaining Millennials — Lessons from Georgia Tech’s Invention Studio

  1. I really enjoyed this concrete example in the engineering halls at George Tech. As you said: “Its really not that hard” – I like to say it simple, just different. The rules and patterns of creating a community that drive (autonomy, purpose and mastery – Dan Pink) self managing and emergence is clear in open source software, stack exchange and wikipedia too.

    I seems like the only way to transform existing organization is to “eat them from the inside out” with these kinds of communities. I don’t sense exampled of your vertical meme movement with traditional change management efforts. It seems traditional change management concepts can only increase your horizontal advancement. I have seen folks at The Hub using Otto Sharmer’s Theory U to try and encourage the vertical growth. Any comments or insights here?


    1. Ryan — re: eating them from the inside-out. Well, I like to think of more of a process of ‘budding’ alongside more traditional social structures. The Invention Studio is a great example of the fact that it can work. At the same time, its success is still not transferred nor mainstreamed into the larger academic culture of Georgia Tech. There are current discussions at Georgia Tech of another Makerspace more geared toward EE that will be located in another building. Part of this has to be logistical — in any university campus, space is at a premium. It will be fun to watch.

      Re: vertical v-meme movement — in traditional Authoritarian structures, the only way I’ve found this to occur is for the Authority at the top realizing that things have to change, and then ordering people into practices and algorithms that create different brain wiring. The prime example of this is W. Edwards Deming, who would not even bother with a company unless the CEO would visit and ask him to implement a change effort. He sneakily did this by appealing to data-driven algorithmic thinking — control charts and such. But as I think I’ve mentioned, what he really did was flip the power structure, by making the guy at the bottom able to stop the whole line with a button — and not be blamed.


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