The Digital Native as Part of the Workforce

There are currently four generations in the workforce – Traditionals (born between 1928 and 1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965 to 1979) and Gen Y (1980-1995).  Though the labels for these generations may differ between authors, these four are commonly accepted as coexisting in today’s workforce.  We note that there is another generation whose influence is just over the horizon, the Millenials, but we do not include them in this discussion as they are not yet ready to enter the workforce.

Presently, the Baby Boomers dominate the U.S. workforce, particularly in management and leadership roles.  This group ranges in age from about 45 to 63, and has been the driving force behind the development of many of the information and communication technology systems in place today.  This is the generation that built the PC and the Internet.  The enterprise architectures that have evolved over the past two decades can be said to be extensions of the Baby Boomer belief that technology should be an enabler.From an innovation perspective, the fluency with technology has resulted in some game changing products, solutions and services.  Interestingly, the first developers and adopters of many of these game changing technologies are the younger users, dominantly Gen X and Gen Y.  Consider Google and the formalization of search (Google was founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two Gen X’ers).  Consider social networking, Web 2.0 and the ICTs that support it (Facebook was founded by a number of 20-year-old college students in their dorm room).

The Digital Native takes technology much further than previous generations.  Mark Prensky, author and game designer, first identified the Digital Native as someone who is a native speaker of technology, who is fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet.  The youngest of the Digital Natives have never known a time without the Internet, where activities such as “Googling” and “Facebooking” and “Tweeting” are a part of the daily routine.  Text messages are becoming a dominant means of communication for adolescents and young adults. A recent article in the New York Times (May 26, 2009), citing a Nielsen Company report, stated that teenagers in the U.S. send an average of 2,272 text messages per month, which is roughly 80 text messages per day.  For many Digital Natives, technology is not merely a tool but an extension of who they are. During our interviews with Digital Natives, a countless number reported:

  • They “could not live without…” their cell phone, computer or the Internet
  • Facebook is how they stay connected and maintain relationships
  • Email is too slow

Interestingly, their parents, co-workers and managers often can recall the days before e-mail.

The Digital Native at Work (Courtesy of Wade Shumaker & NC2IF, The Pennsylvania State University)

ICT’s as a “way of life” for the Digital Native has some interesting ramifications for the workplace.  The Digital Native is comfortable with open collaboration and working in global teams, building and managing extensive social networks via multiple platforms, multi-tasking, as well as searching and managing volumes of information. They are also globally aware and socially-minded and expect transparency and openness at work and in the way they are organized and governed.

A prime example of how the Digital Native is comfortable with managing huge amounts of information simultaneously is World of Warcraft (WoW). Each small graphic is a different player or piece of vital information needed to play the “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” (MMORPG). Games typically include thousands of players from around the world and can span days or weeks.

All is not rosy though for Digital Natives and their employers.  Those Digital Natives just now entering the workforce will still need time to gain that irreplaceable factor of experience, and with which the older generation is leaving.  The younger generation will also bring new beliefs, values and priorities to the workplace, which may incite conflict regarding the culture of authority (e.g., locus of decision-making), work ethic, and the separation (or integration for the Digital Native) between work and life.  Companies will also need to rethink policies on privacy and security for the open digital age, particularly the what and how of regulating the use of certain applications and the boundaries of information exchange.

Building a Collaborative Innovation Model with the Digital Native

Over the past decade, ICTs have brought about a fundamentally new means for collaboration and innovation, and they will continue to do so into the future with even greater influence.  More importantly, a new and quite different generation of workers is emerging who can advantage these means.

From an R&D perspective, the influence of the Digital Native may be far greater when coupled with the current economic downturn.  For many companies in survival mode, a major response has been to significantly reduce R&D spending and headcount as they are forced to focus on near-term revenues.  This shift may be necessary to endure the current turbulent environment, but past research and experience show that this will not be a sustainable strategy; companies will eventually need to reinvest in their R&D in order to innovate and remain competitive.  We believe that those companies who can leverage the talents of the Digital Native to reestablish their innovation capabilities will have an advantage in the future.

The workforce is also in transition, and though current economics have slowed the exit of Traditionals and Baby Boomers as their retirement nest eggs have diminished, the fact still remains that there is a major shift afoot.  This shift will forever change the workplace as we know it, primarily because of the Digital Native and his or her engagement and integration with technology, as well as the novel social and workplace practices that accompany such a life.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email