Digital Natives Are Here

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Is your company blocking access to YouTube? Can no one get on Facebook or check out MySpace? Is your IT department still trying to sell your senior management on the absurd notion that allowing people to access websites that have Flash animation on them could cause some kind of security breach, or worse, cripple your entire technological infrastructure with a deadly computer virus?

We made it through the Y2K scare, but something bigger is brewing in your business and it has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with your human capital. Your ability to grow your business efficiently moving forward is at stake, but this time it’s about your people and not your choice of software.

You know your business is going to be challenged over the next little while with trying to figure out how to bootstrap your way through the economic downturn and the recession (it is a recession, isn’t it?). But there might be something even more challenging happening within your organization right now.

How many employees do you have that are digital natives?

A digital native is essentially anyone who was born and raised in a household where there was always a computer. We’re talking about your new employees who have never known a world without a mouse and a keyboard.

Some of them have not only always had a computer in their life, but they’ve also been online since they were infants. Being connected, chatting through Instant Messenger, sharing files through Google Docs, working collaboratively on a wiki (a Web page that anyone can edit), creating and uploading their own video shows, posting their thoughts to Twitter or updating their Facebook status is all a large part of their daily lives. Much in the same way you pick up the phone to call your spouse or go to the bathroom.

Most of us older folks are digital immigrants (anyone over 30 is, pretty much, a digital immigrant – someone who grew up without digital technology and adopted it later). I love this example from Wikipedia: "A digital native might refer to their new ‘camera’; a digital immigrant might refer to their new ‘digital camera.’ "

How old do you feel now?

Clay Shirky (educator, technologist and author of the amazing book, Here Comes Everybody) sums it up best: "To a 4-year-old, a screen that ships without a mouse ships broken."

Their perspective is very different from ours. We’re doing our best to recruit, retain and engage this workforce and we’re mistaking their multi-platforming (you know, the types of people who watch television with a laptop on their laps – and seven different windows open – while they’re listening to their iPod and texting on their BlackBerry) for time-wasting and lack of focus.

If your company is blocking channels like YouTube and Facebook, it is missing the point. It is missing an opportunity to enable and empower its people to connect.

The same tactic of blocking is used when any new technology comes into the workplace and causes a level of disruption. First off, that’s what great technology does – it disrupts. When phones were first introduced many companies saw no reason why employees should have access to one. The same was true for faxes, computers, email, etc. You would think that we would have learned our lesson by now.

Being connected is not only a part of who they are, it is what they are. Their digital footprints are their personality and not giving them access to these tools, channels and media would be the equivalent of someone telling you that you can’t use the phone or talk to your peers during office hours. The people who are going to abuse their access to Facebook and YouTube are the same ones who would take an extra hour for lunch or not come into work because they are, "cough, cough," sick.

Any great business knows that to get the best talent, you need to be a great place to work. Taking away communications and marketing channels is not going attract the best and brightest. Digital natives have an expectation that work is going to be like school where they are constantly connected, collaborating, researching, sharing, having fun (gasp!) and growing beyond the confines of your four physical walls.

"We believe human contact is what makes companies successful," said Bernardo Huberman with the Information Dynamics group for Hewlett-Packard in a recent interview. "If people don’t communicate and collaborate, not a whole lot will happen. We know there are risks, but the positives far outweigh them in how much spirit social networking and collaboration brings to an organization."

Lee Thomas, the vice-president of IT at Berkshire-Hathaway went on to say: "My supervisor used to send messages about team strategies via email. But when new people came onboard, they didn’t have access to that tribal knowledge."

It might seem like these types of new channels are forcing a new kind of business environment (I’m sure they said the same thing when overnight couriers first started popping up), but the blunt reality is that by enabling and empowering your team to embrace the ways of the digital natives, things should get much more efficient as that "tribal knowledge" now resides in interactive intranets powered by wiki-like software. Places where the knowledge builds over time instead of getting lost in some past employee’s Microsoft Outlook folder.

If you’re still not sold on the power of digital natives and how their culture can help improve and sustain your business, check out Don Tapscott‘s latest book, Grown Up Digital – How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. Tapscott is the best-selling author of Wikinomics and one of the foremost technology thinkers. And, if that doesn’t convince you to think about how much new media and connectivity has changed everything we know, read this quote from David Neale, SVP Products and Service at Telus:

"My son still watches primetime TV. He just doesn’t watch it in prime time. And he doesn’t watch it on a TV."

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Montreal Gazette – Uncircle the wagons – digital natives are here.


  1. This is one of the most insightful HR-related articles I’ve read in a long time. I’m still battling with outdated policies and have been having a hard time figuring out how to argue for embracing social media use from a corporate perspective. I will definitely be forwarding this blog to some key people in my organization.
    I had a good laugh about the “my new digital camera” point. Right on the money.

  2. This is a great blog posting Mitch and I think that the younger generation isn’t going to stand for a workplace that suffocates them by blocking websites and messenger and everything. As you say the ones that abuse it aren’t the ones that you want working for you. But this digital generation is so used to multi-platform engagement that they will work more efficiently reading blogs in one window and then launching over to a memo they are working on while at the same time watching a new video that sparks an idea that might be applicable for their company.
    What i’m wondering is with this attention-deficit generation how long is it going to be before everyone works from a computer at home and comes into the office a couple of days a week for meetings etc. This generation is not going to want to waste time on things like travel to work and water cooler talk, they can do that all online now. Essentially a virtual office is what I see coming as a result of these new digital natives flooding the workforce.

  3. Dave –
    Your comment reminded me of one of my favorite stories I like to tell when I’m talking to people about virtual worlds.
    My then 4-yr-old (very digital native) daughter was sick and I stayed home with her one day, but was heading back to the office the next. She wondered why I couldn’t stay home again and I told her I had some meetings that I had to be there for in person. Her response?
    “Can’t you just meet them in Second Life?”
    One day …

  4. Because of this closed-minded perspective in many large corporations, it opens up a competitive advantage to small and mid-sized businesses to attract better talent in this generation pool. Small and mid-sized businesses could seize this opportunity by being more in-sync with digital natives.

  5. Hello there Mitch,
    Don’t stone me, but I’m still only in the planning stages of that whole bloggy thing. Wondering if it’s a good idea to post some rather raunchy & sophomoric creative projects, if one works in the conservative hush-hush corporate world? Is it a good idea to unpen the Dr. Hyde banging on the padded door?
    Keep up the inspiring work and lead us into the Digital Promised Land. As Bob Dylan wrote, “Any day now / Any day now/ I shall be released.”
    Best regards,
    David Hamburg

  6. I agree 100% about the advantages of empowering the digital natives. However, my company has experienced very real security threats to our network as the result of the irresponsibility of digital immigrants (which comprise a majority of the company).
    While I think it’s important to open up your workforce to the resources available online, it’s also important to diligently educate those that don’t completely understand the nature of the digital landscape.

  7. Wonderful insightful post on the challenges of having mixed generations in the same workforce. One generation’s “distraction” is another generation’s “way of life.”
    Allowing Digital Natives to continue to connect and educating Digital Immigrants about new technologies is a huge step for many.
    But if you want to attract the brightest and the best, this will have to be a given.

  8. Would you block Google?
    New technology is really interesting. It changes our needs, mindsets and behaviour. The term for people who have grown up with what we consider relatively new technology are called Digital Natives (as compared to Digital Immigrants). To accomodate thes…

  9. Kia ora Mitch
    I come to your post while researching web information available on digital natives & digital immigrants.
    Some of the claims that proponents of Prensky and even Prensky himself will allude to is that ‘the brain’ is evolving. The claims are that the so-called net-gen kids think differently and are able to use their minds in a multi-tasking way that eclipses anything attempted by minds that were born generations before them.
    If they knew anything about genetics and the rate of human evolution these people would think twice before making such claims. It could be argued, however that this ‘evolution’ is not a Darwinian genetic one, but rather a feature of the human brain to adapt. I would be more inclined to agree with this.
    But . . .
    I am twice the age of the minimum age to qualify for digital immigrant status, as given in this post. I have two teenage daughters who are definitely net-geners by virtue, not only of their age but also of the digital environment that they grew up in.
    While I have every faith in my daughters’ abilities, their intelligence and their multi-tasking potential, I have yet to notice anything fundamentally different from how they think and the way that my thinking progressed when I was at the same age as they are today. I didn’t use a computer (PC) until 1982 or thereabouts. They laid their little hands on a computer nearer the end of last century.
    Their common sense is sound enough, but their analytical and higher thinking skills are yet to develop, despite their undoubted academic successes at secondary school.
    Further to this, I am a distance educator. I have elearning students who are no more facile in their ability to use their first found technologies than I would be at the age I am at now. And I wonder about this in the light of what you are telling me here.
    I also wonder at the hype that I’m reading about in this post. It appears that there is little useful data gathered from relevant studies, where proper control groups have been selected as comparisons.
    The claims are not only unscientific in this respect, they are also severely misleading at a time when we are all asking questions about where the available Internet technology is about to take us next. The fact is we don’t know the answer to this question, as is evident if one takes the time to scour the latest blogs, wikis, twitter sites and tweets. Just take a look at Stephen Downes’ wonderful chronicles for a place to start being enlightened with this.
    We don’t even know what technology is going to be available 5 years from now, let alone how we are going to use it.
    Admittedly we have a few visionaries such as Don Tapscott. But they are still visionaries – I’m not knocking them, I’m saying that time will tell us if what they think they can see in the future will actually arrive. My hunch is that will be known to us earlier rather than later, but it suits many to say we’ll need to wait a bit longer.
    We have effectively pushed out into the ocean in our boat without a map with this digital native/digital immigrant theory. Having reached places that appear to be new (and probably are) we have no real idea where we are or how we got here. Further to this, we are not too sure where we are about to move off to next.
    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

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