Managing Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

The concept of digital natives and digital immigrants has been around for a number of years. There are various descriptions of what makes someone a digital native. The definition that I like best is a person who had the opportunity to use digital technologies during his/her formative years. These technologies could be video games, cell phones, computers, or any other similar type of technology. Digital immigrants are those who didn’t have access to these digital technologies during their youth, but now have access to them in adulthood.

Typically this divide between natives and immigrants is age related, but this is not always the case.

To illustrate this phenomenon outside the technology arena, I grew up in the Boston area when Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and the rest of the Boston Bruins ice hockey team inspired a generation of pre-teen and teenage boys in New England to play ice hockey in the winter and street hockey during the summer. As a result, I, like all my friends, played a lot of ice and street hockey as a kid. That said, and as the friends of my youth will definitely agree, I wasn’t very good, but I did play virtually day-in and day-out. As an adult, I never played hockey again, instead, I learned to play tennis and played for a number of years. Even in the height of my tennis playing, however, I never felt as comfortable with a tennis racket in my hand as I did with my son’s hockey stick. The reason wasn’t anything related to the sports themselves, it was simply based on when I learned to play.

The reason it’s important for managers to understand the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants is because, stereotypically, digital natives are able to more quickly and more effectively learn and use new technologies.

Not that they are any smarter than digital immigrants, it’s just that they grew up using it. Digital immigrants, however, are stereotypically better at tasks and processes that require face-to-face communication because that’s their most natural and comfortable interpersonal medium.

The key here is that understanding the comfort level with the technology of those who work with you can provide great insights into how to best maximize the productivity of those who work for you. Please note, that a column of this type requires that you be somewhat stereotypical. My goal here is simply to educate and provide management insights to my readers, not to offend. Also, not everyone falls into these stereotypes. There are many digital natives that are great in face-to-face communications and there are many digital immigrants that thrive on new technology breakthroughs. That said, please consider the following:

Digital immigrants are more likely than digital natives to:

  • Print documents they want to read, rather than read them online. Therefore, if you only have a few personal printers to distribute to your staff, give them to your digital immigrants.
  • Be intimidated by new technologies. Therefore, plan extra training time and technical support for those who are less comfortable with technological change.
  • Find bugs and problems with new software because they are less likely to intuitively follow standard user interface habits. Therefore, make sure you have both digital immigrants and digital natives testing newly installed software and electronic devices.

Digital natives are more likely than digital immigrants to:

  • Send email messages using abbreviations, slang, and punctuation designed for text messages. Therefore, provide training to digital natives to assure they send emails in a proper business manner.
  • Return text messages faster than voice mail messages. Therefore, if you want a fast response from a digital native, send him/her a text message, not an email or voice mail message.
  • Only do research using internet-based tools, rather than via one-on-one phone calls, personal connections, or networking. Therefore, if you want multi-dimensional research that goes beyond simple search engine results, specifically instruct them to do so.

In closing, whether it’s relating to technology or any other aspect of professional life, knowing the strengths, weaknesses, and modes of operation of those on your team can help you maximize team efficiency, morale, and productivity while simultaneously reducing staff stress, attrition, and false starts.

-L&D Thoughts
-Article written by Eric P. Bloom, the President of Manager Mechanics LLC, and posted by AXIOM.

Scroll to Top