Strategy: The digital age. Digital native or digital immigrant?

businessexcellence logoWhich category do you fall into? More importantly, which category do your employees fall into? Does the answer really matter? David Dumeresque thinks so and here he explains why.

Over the years, human resources professionals have assigned numerous identifiers for the people who come under their remit: ‘baby boomers’, ‘Generation X’ and ‘Generation Y’ being the primary examples. Perhaps ‘Generation Z’ is just around the corner! But if these terms were not enough, HR managers today now have to deal with two more: ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Digital Immigrants’. The importance of these two idioms to any business, in terms of leadership, is far greater than the Generation terms.

The terms Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants first appeared more than 10 years ago, but neither is well understood by most senior managers today. To explain, Digital Natives are a new breed of employee who have grown up in the digital age and Web 2.0, raised on a diet of electronic toys such as digital music players, video games and cell phones.

On the other hand, Digital Immigrants—the majority of management today—are very different. Like a foreigner coming to live permanently in another country, they came into the digital era but did not actually grow up with it. Without doubt, they have adopted many of the new technological developments that have emerged in recent times, but they learned about technology, not learned with technology, as the Digital Natives have done. The result is that not only are the two generations antithetical, but their differences have changed the employment landscape so emphatically that traditional forms of leadership management are no longer appropriate.

To understand the impact these differences are having on staff management, it is vitally important to have an in-depth understanding of what a Digital Native is, how they work, how they think and how they communicate.

For many years, the ‘command and control’ methods of management—the ‘I know, I tell, you do’—which management training courses have inculcated in generations of managers, are no longer tenable in today’s workplace. One of the reasons for this is that Digital Natives view the world in a completely different way to Digital Immigrants. Command and control methods of management are alien to them: they are too formal and part of a language that is incomprehensible and that doesn’t come close to resembling their upbringing or their expectations.

Consider this: in their undergraduate years the majority of today’s young workforce (and those entering the workforce over the next three to five years) will probably have spent at least 50 per cent more of their time using their digital paraphernalia than they did reading. This is definitely something that cannot be said of Digital Immigrants. It doesn’t mean that the former is less intelligent or less educated; what it says is that Digital Natives simply learn in a very different way.

Digital Natives live and work in an environment where they receive information very rapidly. Graphics play an important role (certainly before text), they prefer the process of random access rather than sequential access (think of the difference between a cassette tape [sequential] and a CD [random]). They also prefer to parallel process and multi-task, and they function best when networked. Instant messaging and accessing social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook is a fundamental part of their lives. This has led some experts to suggest that the environment in which Digital Natives operate has possibly changed their cerebral function. Whatever the conjecture, there is no doubting that Digital Natives think and process information in a significantly different way to Digital Immigrants.

But rather than being seen as a problem for management, it is a wonderful opportunity. The world has changed irrevocably and it is the Digital Native who can actually provide the direction companies need to face to be competitive in the future. However, to attract and retain the necessary talent required to achieve success, management must develop new and collaborative methods of leadership. The unprecedented reach of social media has resulted in communities being developed and built on informal relationships, conveying a tangible sense of freedom with few boundaries, and resulting in this new generation of employees disengaging themselves from the hierarchical structures so common in the workplace today.

Digital Natives not only process information differently, they also share information in a completely different manner. Today, instant messaging—by whatever form—is starting to impact on emails as the preferred method of communication. Given the speed at which information can be disseminated throughout an organisation, this may put HR management in a difficult position since their traditional role as a channel for conveying information both downwards and upwards will need to be re-evaluated.

Even though social media is still uncharted territory for many senior managers and HR directors, it is here to stay and may well be the tipping point for many organisations. Defined as a means by which people discover, read and share news, information and content, there remains a general mistrust of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. At a meeting I attended in the US of CIOs from a large multinational organisation there was a debate about the value and role of social media within the company. The CIO of the Leisure Division made it perfectly clear that social media was unwelcome in his part of the organisation as he could not trust his employees to act appropriately and not waste time fooling around. In contrast, the CIO of the Media Division actively encouraged the use of all types of social media and even championed its value. Although it was a heated debate, what it boiled down to was each CIO’s view of the relationship with employees and specifically ideas around trust and transparency. This was not a debate about technological issues but about fundamental management styles and principles.

The value, both internally and externally, of incorporating social media initiatives with an organisation’s framework can be clearly seen in a number of North American law firms, where social media has created new opportunities for lawyers to develop their personal and professional networks, and to flourish as thought leaders and entrepreneurs. As members of the social media community they can quickly develop a loyal following, their readers tracking their work wherever they go. To fee earners, this following is a form of sustainable human capital which is very valuable both in business retention and development for the firm. This same practice can be successfully utilised across virtually every industry.

Social media initiatives can have an extremely positive impact on both the internal and external communications of a company. They can build and solidify relationships with employees and they can actively increase engagement with existing and potential clients or customers. For the first time in more than a century we are being faced with the question: “What is the nature, value, role and function of leadership in organisations?” The responsibility to understand what it takes to manage in a more transparent, knowledgeable and highly connected world falls on all those who are complicit in the recruitment, development, promotion and training of all leaders and managers. Some major corporations—companies such as GSK, Linux and British Telecom—are starting to embrace social media and are pioneering change. They realise the long-term potential of recognising, understanding and exploiting the opportunities that lie in a world where social media is playing an increasingly important role, and establishing the infrastructure for Digital Natives to contribute significantly to their organisation.

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