How to recognize the digital native

One theme Shel and I have discussed quite a few times on the FIR podcast is the different behaviours younger people exhibit in how they communicate compared to the traditional behaviours in the workplace.

We have a terrific example – in FIR #133, Shel’s teenage daughter Rachel talks about how she and her friends communicate. It’s nothing like you see in the typical organization where email is the indispensible communication tool.

Forget email for this generation. Don’t even think about file attachments. They use instant messaging. They use mobile phone text messaging. They’re online all the time. They don’t think of tools like Skype as making a phone call – they’re just extended informal conversation devices.

These different behaviours will have enormous impact on organizations as these kids finish school and university and enter the workplace, bringing their behaviours and expectations with them.

Of all those expectations, being online whenever and wherever they want to be is the top one. Interesting to see a powerful message yesterday from Anne Kirah, Senior Design Anthropologist at Microsoft, with a clear warning to employers:

Jobseekers will think twice about employers who lock down work internet access, a senior Microsoft executive said today. “These kids are saying: forget it! I don’t want to work with you. I don’t want to work at a place where I can’t be freely online during the day.” […] “Companies all over the world are saying, oh, you can’t be on the internet while you’re at work. You can’t be on instant messaging at work… These are digital immigrant ideas.”

Kirah defines ‘digital immigrants’ as people who were not born into the digital lifestyle and view it as a distraction rather than an integral part of life. The younger generation of workers have been using computers and mobile phones since birth and she calls them ‘digital natives.’

“Digital communication is part of people’s lives now. Their friends online are the people they identify with.”

If you run a company that has blanket restrictions and rules about online usage, you need to think again. Find a way to satisfy your security needs while enabling employees to be online.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Shel Holtz

    Actually, this is nothing particularly new; business has been through it before. I recall a panel discussion with four Gen-Xers that I attended back around 1996, before a lot of companies had fully implemented email and were not allowing anybody to access the Web. One question posed to the panel: “What would you think of a company that would not allow you to go onto the Web and did not have email?” “Nothing,” replied one of the panelists. “I would never work for a company like that.” The other three quickly and enthusiasticlally agreed.

    A solution in search of a problem, David? Not being able to recruit the talent you need to execute your business strategy sounds like a problem to me!

  2. Lauren Vargas

    As a borderline Gen Y, my highschool life line was my pager. I have a smartphone now and although I have access online whenever and wherever, my life line is text messaging. Want to get a hold of me? I don’t like voicemail and e-mail is not fast enough for me. We, the “digital natives”, want instant gratification. Patience is slim to nothing. I still have a love for the printed word, but while I am at work I depend on the web. I would not even consider a job where the organization would not allow use of the web — I understand restrictions on My Space and such because it brings personal relationships into the workplace. Organizations should foster responsibility.

  3. Shel Holtz, ABC

    David, did you hear the interview with my daughter?

    People at work need to communicate. In fact, I recall a study that said professionals spend most of their work day communicating, regardless of their profession. You may not need the web, but you will need to communicate with co-workers. If email is the only option, you risk losing the best candidates to companies that offer instant messaging and SMS. If you have an intranet, you’ll do better with an internal social network — a work-related MySpace-like tool — than a typical online employee phone directory. This has nothing to do with the nature of your work, but rather with the nature of work.

  4. Stephen Waddington

    In our workplace we have integrated IM with the rest of our communication methods. I think if you set clear guidelines – as long as they are not too strict – IM can have many advantages as a form of communication. We also encourage clients to add our staff to their IM list. Because IM is quick and, in general, perceived as an informal channel, it can help foster relationships that are not necessarily based around work.

  5. David Tebbutt

    Shel: I can’t see what’s wrong with what I said right at the beginning “I would have thought it depends on their job.”

    I still think that. What’s the point in pretending otherwise?

    “professionals spend most of their work day communicating”. Exactly. I agree.

    But the world is not entirely made up of ‘professionals’. Whatever they are.

  6. Shel Holtz

    Certainly, assembly line workers don’t work at computers and communicate face-to-face for the most part. This isn’t a recruiting issue for them. But then again, I don’t think Neville’s post was meant to address that audience in the first place, just those employees who do have computers and do need to communicate with those beyond their line of sight. To suggest that this need depends on whether the worker has a computer and needs to communicate or not is something of a blinding flash of the obvious, don’t you think?

  7. neville

    I think Lauren’s and Stephen’s comments indicate what the workplace ought to make available to employees – the means to communicate in whatever is the most effective and preferred way.

    So I tend not to think within a narrow parameter of just providing the means only for those who obviously need them to do their jobs. Those assembly line workers may not need to be online, say, or use IM in order to do their jobs. But why shouldn’t they be able to make use of the measn their ‘professional’ colleagues have if they want to, whenever they want?

    Selective enablement is just silly.

  8. Raoul Pop

    I agree with what you say, but free and unfetered internet access at work is a balancing act. Having been an IT director and having implemented internet content filtering, I know this first hand. I hated to do it, and when I finished configuring our firewall, it filtered out very little, but it did filter out p0rn and access to sites that were bandwidth eaters, like online radio stations, video sites, etc.

    There are certain sites that are best accessed from one’s personal internet connection, for various reasons such as liability, productivity, respect for others, etc. My employees and I were just sick of seeing people try to go to p0rn websites all day long, or not being able to download important updates for our servers because our bandwidth was eaten up by recreation sites.

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