Digital natives. The first time I really heard this phrase, it was 2016 and I was sitting in a classroom, surrounded by “them” and feeling as old as dirt.
You see, I was born the same year Michael Dell started his business. Before the word windows meant anything other than something you looked out of. My first school papers meant researching with microfiche at the public library and scouring my parents collection of Britannica Encyclopedias. I was old enough to have been the responsible babysitter for some of my classmates. I felt old and out of date.
But then, over the intensive eight months on campus, I realized the sheer power the younger side of my generation and the generations after us bring. The unique way they see challenges and overcome obstacles. The inherent belief that any problem can be solved and that, of course they can find the answer, they just need a few more minutes to dig around the internet. I was and continue to be in awe of these digital natives. While Generation X may have brought us into the age of the internet, it is without a doubt that Millennials and those that follow us will truly capitalise on the knowledge of those who came before us and carry society forward in ways our ancestors couldn’t have fathomed.
So what exactly is a digital native? Better yet, why do I think they may be your best innovation tool? Marc Prensky is credited with coining the term in his 2001 article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” and goes on to define them as being a group who “…think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.” A digital native is someone who has spent their entire life surrounded by technology. They have always had access to a television, computers, video game consoles, mobile phones and the like. For them, a rotary phone is an antique.
But, for all we like to mock the generation who “doesn’t know how good they have it”, we do need to pause and realise that their assumed unawareness is in our favour. When you aren’t burdened by memories of the past it is much, much easier to move forward into the future.
1. They are fearless
Some might say that with age comes wisdom and that’s why they’re fearless. I disagree. A digital native knows the power of the internet and with it, the vast expanses of knowledge that are available. They are fearless in their pursuit of innovation, because they have faith that if it can be found, they will find it. And if it can’t be found, they can build it. Fearless.
2. They understand the power of collaboration
My earliest memory of collaboration was playing imaginary games like “shark in the water” on the neighbourhood play structure and working together to beat the shark and make it to land. For my younger brother, it’s probably two-player mode on our Sega Genesis and working together to beat the dungeon boss. Both are collaboration, one analog and one digital. Humans are natural collaborators, the key is understanding how to tap into that and bridge the differences between the two experiences.
3. They want to scale mountains on the first day
One of my most valuable professional lessons came in my mid-twenties. I was having a 1:1 with my manager Dave and he said to me “Julie, you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.” Innovation comes from small bites and changing the recipe one ingredient at a time until you have the right mix. Digital natives will continue to strive to make improvements and as Simon Sinek gently mocks in his September 2016 podcast with Inside Quest, they want to “make an impact” with their contributions. I personally think it’s something to be admired. As a hiring manager I would much rather have an employee I need to coach on scaling back than one I need to light a fire under.
4. They are curious
Think back to your last conversation with a digital native where you were explaining a new process, design, etc. How many times did they ask you “why?” in the course of that conversation? It’s not because they are challenging your authority. It’s because they have an inherent need to understand the inner workings. This is both the blessing and the curse of having the “world at their fingertips” through the power of the internet. With the power of being able to look up just about anything, the need to understand everything can sometimes be crippling. It’s our responsibility to coach them through this and continue to foster their curiosity.
Taking these four reasons into account and the overall differences in experiences a digital native has had and you hopefully realise they are needed to challenge status quo in today’s organizations. Boardrooms need courageous contributors who are comfortable asking “why?” and leaders who welcome respectful dissent and challenger behaviours.
In my experience, a digital native is a problem solver. They identify the problem, build (often digitally) a solution and then present both the problem and a way to fix that. They know no boundaries. Suffice to say, those coming behind us are an amazing power and an innovation resource that should not be discarded thoughtlessly.