Digital natives or digital immigrants? 3 tactics to manage multigenerational digital transformation

Burke Turner

Back in the day, consultant and writer Marc Prensky coined the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ to describe generational differences in the workplace. Actually, it was 2001… And whether or not you think that’s `back in the day’ depends on which generational camp you belong to.

Digital natives, born between the early ‘80s and the mid ‘90s, have grown up immersed in digital technology. It’s as natural to them as breathing. Digital immigrants are technology adopters, a mixed-ability jumble of baby boomers and Generation X, born from the mid ‘40s to early ‘80s. They remember life before digital technology - when the ultimate in cool gadgets was a Sony Walkman, and gaming meant an Atari 2600 and a friendly round of Pong.

As Prensky’s paper Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants points out, the immigrants have adjusted pretty well to their new surroundings, but have never entirely lost their past ‘accent’. The strength of the accent varies, of course – from the mild (making a phone call to check “did you get my email?”) to the virtually unintelligible (getting your secretary to print the email out for you).

Different generations working side by side is nothing new, so why do these distinctions and accents matter? Because over the next 3 years digital natives will form just over 50% of the workforce. By 2025 the digital natives will outnumber the digital immigrants. How organisations manage and engage this multigenerational workforce right now will be a key determinate of winners and losers in the future business space.

Atmosphere has helped many organisations navigate their way through multigenerational digital transformation. Here are 3 tactics to bring everyone along on the journey, regardless of age or digital accent.  

  1.     Reverse mentoring

If your organisation’s leaders are entirely digital immigrants, they will struggle to inform or enthuse a population of digital natives who speak a different language. The students must therefore become the teachers.  

In their recent article Reverse mentoring: How millennials are becoming the new mentors Microsoft make the case for turning traditional peer mentoring on its head. Senior managers at Microsoft Norway regularly turn to their younger colleagues for insight and guidance on what drives younger talent, what they expect in the workplace, and how to engage a new generation of customers. General Manager Michael Jacobs, a seasoned leader with decades of management experience, meets every two months with 28-year-old Sales Executive, Magnus Svorstøl Lie.

Magnus is mentoring me on what the workplace should look like going forward, what his generation is interested in, what they are looking for, how we can make ourselves attractive for young talent, and last but not least, how we make sure we stay relevant to them both as a potential employer and as an important customer segment.”

Reverse mentoring is a two-way street, giving tomorrow’s leaders a view from the top. While this makes good business sense, it’s absolutely crucial when it comes to the mathematics. As a recent Hay Group study Managing a multigenerational workforce noted, the youngest baby boomers will soon be reaching retirement. While Generation Xers are taking over their leadership roles in increasing numbers, there are simply not enough of them to fill the jobs. To remain competitive, organisations must be far more intentional about fast-tracking their digital natives as future leaders, giving them both depth and breadth of experience while they are still in junior positions.

  1.     Fostering a growth mindset

This has nothing to do with age. It’s about encouraging an appetite for change, allowing a safe space for trying out new ideas. Fostering a growth mindset is about cultivating a person’s abilities and rewarding effort rather than just the innate ability to `get the digital stuff’.  

Digital natives view the world horizontally, in equalitarian rather than hierarchical terms. They are generally collaborative and value the opportunity to share their ideas and creativity at work. If CEOs were to apply that mindset to everyone within the organisation, employees across the generational piece will be more willing to invest in change.

When it comes to job satisfaction and engagement, employees are united across the generational divide. Digital natives are not a unique breed. Natives and immigrants alike are driven to succeed by well-managed organisations that demonstrate care and a desire to listen. They want access to learning resources and the authority to make decisions that impact their work.

Rather than assuming that a person’s competencies are set in stone, a growth mindset involves the belief that in the right environment they can be developed over time. After decades of research on achievement and success, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University Carol Dweck has become the world authority on The Growth Mindset – the idea that intelligence and talent are just the starting point, not the creators of success. Rather than fostering self-esteem and accomplishment, praising brains and talent can actually jeopardise them.

  1.     Normalising mistakes as part of learning

When Enron collapsed in December 2001, one of the cited explanations was a culture obsessed with praising talent and intelligence. None of its employees wanted to admit problems, mistakes or failure because it was not acceptable in Enron’s culture to make any kind of error. As a result, employees lied about problems rather than collaborating with others to find a strategic solution.

Admittedly, the sheer scale of digital can present a barrier to creative risk. From CRM programmes to branded Twitter accounts, today’s errors can have a global reach. What if you send the wrong thing?  

The fact is, digital moves fast and mistakes will happen. This is how digital businesses learn and change as part of a continuing development process. Today’s generation may be digitally fluent, but they expect to make mistakes. Everyone does, no matter what their job title… Covfefe anyone?

Digital transformation is not the destination, it’s a journey – and your organisation’s digital natives are ideally placed to become the guides. They can play a crucial role as influencers, supporting the digital immigrants as they adopt new ways of working, and creative ways of engaging with customers. They can help make sure the transformation journey brings the entire business along with it, not just the digitally-savvy few.

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