Marc Prensky has a three-day rule. Every time he hires a new employee, he asks them straightaway: "What do we do that's crazy?" He's looking for fresh insight, and if he doesn't get to them in the first three days it's too late - "because after three days they will say 'that's the way we do it'". Prensky believes there are even fresher insights to be gleaned from "digital natives" - the emerging crop of technologically savvy employees who have googled and wiki'd their way through school and university - if only companies would learn to, like, listen. Prensky spun his business, Games2train, out of Bankers Trust's e-learning division in 1999 believing that digital natives learn differently - they don't want to be herded into classrooms or lectured at; rather, they like the more immersive learning experience provided by computer games and alternative realities. Use their tools - that's how you teach them, Prensky reasons.
Today's 18 year olds were born when there were already 80,000 computers hooked up to the internet. Young people entering higher education and the workforce do not form a homogenous tech-savvy cohort, but they do make up the first generation that has at least had the opportunity to be online since birth. They do stuff differently.
How to integrate these digital natives into the workforce is exercising the minds of Baby Boomer and Generation X employers everywhere. Meanwhile, educators, governments and marketers are scrambling to understand what this generation will be like as students, citizens and consumers.
According to Ian Neild, a disruptive futurist for the UK-based telecommunications company BT, this is a generation that often has a better IT set-up at home than they would find in most offices today. At home, they can google any information they want, publish and participate in online communities, talk for free using Skype, download gigabytes of information onto a message stick and waltz it out the door. The information access or usage policies of big business would trigger an allergic reaction in most of them, and the very idea of being tied to a desk in a wireless world is anathema.
Although some digital natives have already made their way into the corporate arena, it is universities that are copping the first big wave. Forced to compete for students, they are now reviewing how to best reach and teach the members of this new generation. Many institutions are heading online - some are even running undergraduate courses in virtual worlds such as Second Life. Others are having to overhaul their academic ranks, weeding out academics who can't or won't make the transition to tech-savviness expected by this crop of undergraduates.
In a paper presented at a recent conference, Dr Axel Bruns from Queensland University of Technology said: "As ivory towers crumble, traditional content-based, narrative-based or apprenticeship-style education is becoming increasingly irrelevant." He suggests that universities instead deploy this generation's blogs and wikis to encourage students to collaborate on curriculum design and content - to become "produsers" of educational material (that is, user-producers). Digital natives will not passively accept the status quo - they form a generation that demands to be involved and consulted. Pronto.
In the US, when the University of Rochester wanted to revamp its libraries it let its students teach it about what they wanted, with surprising results. A field study of students found that the hours the library was open and the times staff were available was completely out of synch with student needs. And early design plans were completely out of kilter with what students really wanted. To find out what digital native students wanted, Susan Gibbons, associate dean of the River Campus Libraries at the University, paid 14 volunteers US$10 each to mark on a colour map where they were on campus, at what time - believing that asking for responses to a standard questionnaire would be too limiting.
"The mapping diary showed that our times and when we were available were almost 12 hours off what they needed from us," says Gibbons. Besides mapping diaries, students were given disposable cameras and asked to take a series of photos that showed "something you would call high tech", "your favourite place to study", and "what you carry with you". Another 10 students then created storyboards depicting the steps they had taken to complete an assignment and another group was asked to design their optimal study space using craft equipment.
When Gibbons came to pore over the material generated, she was greeted by the sound of exploding sacred cows. "We were amazed, even though some of us are quite young, at how wrong we were about what we thought students wanted," she says. "For example, we had these big bay windows and thought they might want big comfortable chairs to read in. But no, they wanted big tables with six or eight chairs. They wanted to spread out their laptops and books in the prime position."
It's not just universities that are grappling with the wish list of this generation. Marketers are discovering that digital natives represent a new breed of consumer. They want 24/7 service, access to products right around the world, and want to customise the consuming experience - and preferably get stuff for free.
As Ian Neild notes, "These are people with an iPod or message stick they paid $200 for that holds $14,000 worth of information that we don't know how they got, but they've got it for free. How do you sell them an information service?
"This is a customer with 20-60 Gbyte in their pocket. They find most information online on Google or Wikipedia. Most of their leisure time is spent online on games, in virtual lives, using SMS and instant messaging - they are never far from the keyboard and the screen."
Call them digital natives, Gen Y, millennials, the C generation - the fact is, whatever the moniker, you need to understand them before you can teach them or reach them. There are, however, dangers in assuming generational homogeneity - not all young people are bristling with technological know-how.
Dr Gregor Kennedy, head of the biomedical multimedia unit at the University of Melbourne, is leading a team of researchers exploring just how switched on these net generation students really are. A 2006 study revealed that while many were regular users of emails, texting and instant messaging, only a fraction of students were bloggers or involved in other forms of social networking. A further investigation is now under way, and has so far surveyed more than 2500 undergraduates and teaching staff at three universities. Kennedy believes the results, expected at the end of the year, should "demonstrate the degree to which students or teachers are adept with technology, and how to use emerging technologies in pedagogically sound ways". So far, Kennedy says, the research shows clear differences in technological savviness in each of the three universities, which reinforces the earlier finding that despite their birth coinciding with that of the mainstream internet, the notion of a homogenous digital native population is a furphy.
"There is still a lot of diversity," he says. "Just because they were born at the same time as the internet will not necessarily mean they have an innate affinity with technology." While there are core technologies that most are comfortable with, the generation is not uniformly technically literate.
Kennedy's research focuses on the university environment, but he believes companies that will hire this generation of workers also need to recognise its diversity, and tackle some of the shortcomings associated with believing the answer to everything is not in fact 42, but Google.
"One of the challenges is the issue of information literacy," warns Kennedy. He believes business and educational institutions face a cultural challenge to ensure that emerging workforces are equipped with the requisite skills to navigate a multiplicity of different information sources and arrive at sensible conclusions.
Instilling business understanding and the realities of the market in younger workers is something already exercising H.R. Shiever, the managing director of Citrix Online Asia Pacific. "Part of management responsibility will be to train people about professionalism" he says. He believes technology has made some new-generation workers overly informal. "You still sometimes need proper grammar and punctuation. Things leap through walls very quickly in a blog-enabled world." Shiever says management needs to instill in digital natives the basic rules of business - smiley faces on emails are fine in-team but not in client communications.
"There is a whole crop of people who may not have been raised in that environment," he says. Shiever's own pan-Asia Pacific team all use instant messaging, online meetings, blogs, wikis and internet phone calls, but "I told my team that I don't want them pinging me every five minutes with a question on instant messenger," he says. "I say I'd rather you collected your thoughts and then we have a phone call for half an hour." Younger tech-enabled workers need to understand that "what is right at your fingertips isn't always the best. You sometimes need to think."
And while the younger generation has a lot to learn, there's some re-education needed in the ranks of their managers too. Greg Muller, managing director of ebusiness solutions company iFocus, says employees used to cede control in an enterprise to the employer. But that's no longer the case, he argues. The reverse is now the norm. Young employees want more control of their location, their work environment and the different phases of their career. And the skills crisis means it's a seller's market.
"For an employer, it's about being relevant to the employee," says Muller. He had to work through some of the issues recently when one of his young hires told him that he really didn't want to be an analyst, he wanted to be a singer. "We gave him the flexibility to do that. It's about maximising their experience with the firm when they are with the firm," says Muller. He says that for the emerging crop of employees, "life isn't about career, life is about experience". And if they don't have a good one when they're working for you, they'll dob in the employer to their global network of online mates - which can make it harder to find good staff in the future. "Word gets around quickly," says Muller.
Brian Prentice is a Gartner research director who believes one of the changes that corporations should consider to help them get at hard-to-find skills is crafting 20-hour job descriptions in order to attract more workers. Although the 20-hour jobs might be interesting to older workers, they might equally attract digital natives who have a different approach to work and are more focused on an "experience-oriented" lifetime. "The statistics are clearly showing that Generation X and Y are ranking flexibility and working choice highly," says Prentice.
Marc Prensky cautions against imposing too much traditional culture on young workers if there's a risk it might quash their ability to act as important agents of change - bridges between today's and tomorrow's world.
"We have in finance and higher-end intellectual businesses an enormous skills base, but a tradition that says 'you pays your dues'," Prensky says. "They are mostly about hierarchy and very top down. The change is that people now want to feel they are making a contribution from day one."
Companies would benefit more if they were prepared to take their new crop of young employees and, if not drop them in the deep end, at least let them float around in it, says Prensky. "So much strategy depends on IT and young people are writing so much of it," he says. Rather than relying on seasoned executives to try new things to reach out for new customers, Prensky says companies should let their new graduates loose to come up with the fresh ideas needed to capture the fresh crop of customers.
"You need people to be willing to say there is value in these people immediately, trust them and respect them as peers," says Prensky. "At the moment there is a huge lack of respect between generations. The big strategic challenge is that corporations still think they have to train workers, rather than the opposite - let the employees train them." It's likely to remain a hot topic in company kitchens and corridors.
Getting creative with collaboration
There are more than 1000 IBM employees using Second Life as part of their working lives, according to Cory Ondrejka, the chief technology officer at Linden Lab, which developed the online world. In its 2007 report on the impact of digitalisation, KPMG quotes Ondrejka interpreting IBM's enthusiasm: "Because they are a giant multinational business corporation and they are trying to figure out if they can increase collaboration between business units - really boring business process stuff. Think about it: what if virtual worlds allow you to do five per cent less travel?"
It must have IBM founder Thomas Watson turning in his grave. He wouldn't want IBM staff lurking behind funky avatars; he wanted them in uniform white shirts. Heavens to Betsy, when he made his staff put a sign saying "Think" on their desks, he didn't mean for themselves.
Glenn Wightwick's IBM is on a different planet from Watson's. Wightwick, 41, is an IBM distinguished engineer and director of the Australia Development Lab, and in six months since taking on the role says he has had a "crash course in the demographic we're working with".
He personally spends a lot of time with the 19- to 20-year-old interns that the company brings in from university courses, and about 400 of the Lab's 600 staff are Generation X or Y. Wightwick floats on a sea of digital natives. A decade ago, young interns would have asked their boss about IBM's business operational issues and their likely role in solving them. Today, Wightwick says they are just as likely to grill him about IBM's environmental policies, its track record on corporate social responsibility, its emerging business model, their role in the team, or how virtual worlds can be created and secure avatars developed.
Wightwick acknowledges the challenge in learning "how to embrace that energy, enthusiasm and passion" and deal with generational diversity. For one thing, managers have to get creative harnessing skills from different generations; they
need to show respect to young workers without diminishing
the value of older, more experienced employees.
For IBM, it's proving important also to cycle young people through different technical areas and out to client-facing roles to keep them engaged and keen. And while there are management challenges, Wightwick thinks it produces better software engineers, with more experience, who can be more easily retained. Meanwhile, mentoring programs ensure that younger people have someone more experienced to turn to when they need to, while the young persons' ideas and enthusiasm rub off on their mentors.
"We had an intern in Perth who said to the software engineer mentoring her that she was interested in connecting virtual worlds into IBM technology," Wightwick says. "She was very creative and willing to risk and fail. Looking back at how I'd have tackled it 20 years ago, I'd have been looking for more reinforcement, and to plan it out."
Management tips: New dogs, old tricks
- Just because they do stuff differently doesn't mean they do stuff wrong. Explore the gaps for opportunities.
- Tap digital natives early to find out what they think is wrong with the way you do business today.
- Ask them what they'd do differently, and how that might improve the business.
- Understand that mentoring digital natives is a two-way gig - older employees will learn just as much.
- Explain why there should be some difference between business and personal technology etiquette, and why information sources other than Google and Wikipedia bear exploration.
- Don't impose Boomer or Gen X prejudices when analysing digital native needs. Let them frame the questions and the answers.
- Don't expect digital natives to be homogenous - they won't all bristle with technology, but they should speak the language.
Australian Financial Review
© Fairfax Business Media
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