Dealing with digital natives

The whole issue of ‘dealing with digital natives’ seems to be cropping up in most conversations I’ve had with senior IT leaders over the last couple of weeks. But are these people really an issue?

I was talking to IT management consultant David Henderson about it a few days ago, and he pointed out that most companies are still burying their heads in the sand when it comes to providing tools for the people coming into the workforce and are simply blocking tools such as social media platforms.

Some businesses block these tools simply because they can’t see how employees can spend time on those ‘Twittering things’ and still get work done. Others are simply unprepared. EasyJet, for example, banned Facebook and YouTube last year because use of such web sites was putting too much strain on the company’s bandwidth.

At the time, I asked business consultant and author Don Tapscott what he thought about that particular case and he replied: “well, they should just go and get more bandwidth!”

And when it comes to slackers, if an employee gets to spend the entire day playing Farmville on Facebook, then surely there is something wrong about the leadership. Besides, if people really want to access such sites, they will find ways around it.

Many senior IT managers have commented about how employee productivity has dramatically improved when they were allowed to use collaboration tools, bring their own kit to work, work remotely, etc.

So if fostering collaboration is the way to go, why are businesses not doing it? Typically, managers will cite security as a key blocker, followed by the cultural factors mentioned above plus a degree of nervousness that things may go pear shaped.

David’s suggestion in terms of managing the expectations of the digital natives is education. Similarly to JP Rangaswami – a strong advocate of use of social media for the greater good – he says that businesses should establish the boundaries of what can and can’t be shared, make employees more accountable and they will start seeing results.

Companies are still scratching their heads to figure out something that is going on right under their noses. This may suggest they don’t know their people, so they will just block these tools and one fine day, the employees will just leave, including the best ones.

Seth Godin pointed out in an old blog post that perhaps HR should move towards talent management, while adding that talent is too smart to stay long at a company that wants it to be a cog in a machine.

As someone who was born in the 1980s, I sometimes wonder why connected 20-somethings are seen as a threat instead of an asset for organisations. If these people will be occupying senior positions (CIO included) in about five to 10 years time, how long will it take until businesses start learning from them?


Click here to listen to a podcast with David Henderson about the challenges faced by CIOs around management of digital natives.