Thursday, November 27, 2008

Are you native to the digital world or just visiting?

Vancouver Sun: 2008 November 27
Mitch Joel

Is your company presently blocking access to YouTube? Can no one get on Facebook or check out MySpace? Is your IT department still trying to sell your senior management on the absurd notion that allowing people to access websites that have Flash animation on them could cause some kind of security breach, or worse, cripple your entire technological infrastructure with a deadly computer virus?

We made it through the Y2K scare, but something bigger is brewing in your business. It has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with your human capital. Your ability to grow your business efficiently is at stake, but this time it's about your people and not your choice of software solutions.

If you thought your business is going to be challenged over the next little while with trying to figure out the economic downturn and how you're going to bootstrap your way through this recession (it is a recession, isn't it?), there might be something even more challenging happening within your organization.

How many employees do you have who are Digital Natives?

A Digital Native is essentially anyone who was born and raised in a household where there was always a computer. We're talking about your new employees who have never known a world without a mouse and a keyboard. Some of them have not only always had a computer in their life, but they've also been online since they were infants. Being connected, chatting through Instant Messenger, sharing files through Google Docs, working collaboratively on a wiki (a web page that anyone can edit), creating and uploading their own videos, posting their thoughts to Twitter or updating their Facebook status is all a large part of their daily lives -- much in the same way you pick up the phone to call your spouse or go to the bathroom. Most of us older folks are Digital Immigrants (anyone over 30 is, pretty much, a Digital Immigrant -- someone who grew up without digital technology and adopted it later). I love this example from Wikipedia: "A digital native might refer to their new 'camera'; a digital immigrant might refer to their new 'digital camera'."

How old do you feel now?

Clay Shirky (educator, technologist and author of the amazing book, Here Comes Everybody) summed it up best when he recounted how his friend's four-year-old daughter wondered why the TV screen didn't come with a mouse. Their perspective is very different from ours. We're doing our best to recruit, retain and engage this workforce, and we're mistaking their multi-platforming (you know, the types of people who watch television with a laptop on their laps -- and seven different windows open -- while they're listening to their iPod and texting off of their BlackBerry) for time wasting and lack of focus.

If your company is blocking channels like YouTube and Facebook, you are missing the point. You're missing an opportunity to enable and empower your people to connect. The same tactic of blocking is used when any new technology comes into the workplace and causes a level of disruption. First off, that's what great technology does ... it disrupts. When phones were first introduced, many companies saw no reason why employees should have access to one. The same was true for faxes, computers and e-mail. You would think that we would have learned our lesson by now. Sadly, we have not.

Being connected is not only a part of who they are, it is what they are. Their digital footprints are their personality, and not giving them access to these tools, channels and media would be the equivalent of someone telling you that you can't use the phone or talk to your peers during office hours. The people who are going to abuse their access to Facebook and YouTube are the same ones who would take an extra hour for lunch or not come into work because they are -- cough, cough -- sick.

Any great business knows that to get the best talent, you need to be a great place to work. Taking away communications and marketing channels that are critical to their success is not going to attract the best and brightest. Digital Natives have an expectation that work is going to be like school, where they are constantly connected, collaborating, researching, sharing, having fun (gasp!), and growing beyond the confines of your four physical walls.

"We believe human contact is what makes companies successful," said Bernardo Huberman with the Information Dynamics group for HP in a recent interview. "If people don't communicate and collaborate, not a whole lot will happen. We know there are risks, but the positives far outweigh them in how much spirit social networking and collaboration brings to an organization."

Lee Thomas, the vice-president of IT at Berkshire-Hathaway went on to say, "My supervisor used to send messages about team strategies via e-mail. But when new people came onboard, they didn't have access to that tribal knowledge."

It might seem like these types of new channels are forcing a new kind of business environment (I'm sure they said the same thing when overnight couriers first started popping up), but the blunt reality is that by enabling and empowering your team to embrace the ways of the Digital Natives, things should get much more efficient as that "tribal knowledge" now resides in interactive intranets powered by wiki-like software. Places where the knowledge builds over time instead of getting lost in some past employee's Outlook folder.

If you're still not sold on the power of Digital Natives and how their culture can help improve and sustain your business, check out Don Tapscott's latest book, Grown Up Digital -- How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. Tapscott is the best-selling author of Wikinomics and one of the foremost technology thinkers in Canada. And, if that doesn't convince you to think about how much new media and connectivity has changed everything we know, read this quote from David Neale, head of product development at Telus: "My son still watches prime-time TV. He just doesn't watch it in prime time. And he doesn't watch it on a TV."

Mitch Joel is president of the digital marketing and communications agency Twist Image. He is writing a book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his blog and podcast.