by Abbie Lundberg

Digital Natives in Our Midst

Jun 16, 20083 mins
IT Leadership

If there’s anyone under 30 working in your company, you’ve got Digital Natives. Marc Prensky coined this term in 2001, in a paper titled, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” His starting point: “today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” Things need to change, and they need to change fast. Since 2001, many of those students have graduated, and they’re working for you.

Digital natives grew up immersed in technology, according to Prensky, while digital immigrants adopted the new technology later in life. Why does this matter? “As Digital Immigrants learn to adapt to their environment,” Prensky writes, “they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past….. Our Digital Immigrant instructors… are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.”

It’s worse than that. Many teachers either have yet to immigrate or have no intention of doing so. Business is no better off. Today’s organizations and management systems are not designed for either the new way of work that information and communications technologies have enabled or the new employees these technologies have helped to create.

This was a core topic at last week’s Seattle Innovation Symposium, an intense, invitation-only summit of educators and business technology leaders led by Harvard’s Rob Austin (Rob chairs Harvard’s exec ed program for CIOs) and the University of Washington’s Dick Nolan. (The video from this year’s Symposium isn’t up yet, but you’ll find both video and audio from previous years here.) A panel moderated by Michael Eisenberg of UW’s I-School explored the fundamental question of just how different these workers really are, as well as the benefits and challenges those differences represent.

One of the more intriguing issues raised was the fact that Digital Natives view as “co-workers” anyone within their network who can help them solve a problem. While this may be a wonderful way to bring new ideas into the firm, it also exposes proprietary information as workers seek to more fully define the problem space they’re working in. “We’ve never before seen sub-groups working across organizational boundaries to advance the interests of the sub-group at the expense of the corporation,” said Wharton Business School Professor Eric Clemons. Few companies are prepared to deal with these issues in any comprehensive way.

It was great to see so much quality thought on this topic from some of our universities’ leading thinkers. I’ll share more from the Symposium in future posts. In the meantime, for tips on managing these new employees and spanning the gaps between them and the Baby Boomers, check out our collection of articles on managing multiple generations in today’s workforce.