Information technology is affecting every aspect of our lives. The question that remains is –- how does it shape and change us? Or doesn’t it? Are the digital media just new channels for the same old conversations, or do they have a more profound influence on the way we relate to one another? Most importantly, are the new generations born in this different, digital environment significantly affected by it and therefore different from their parents’ generation?
Many authors believe that today’s young people have different behavioral patterns than generations before them. This is, partly, because they were born in a world where information networks and digital technologies are a way of life (which explains why they are often called digital natives). These new youngsters are not only digitally more capable then the previous generations, but they also think and learn differently, have different social characteristics and expectations, and consequently – they communicate differently. Research shows they want their information fast, through digital technologies, while multitasking. So, what does this mean for a modern organization?
In a study conducted by BPW Foundation, it was noted that by 2025 this newest generation of employees will make up around 75 percent of the world’s workforce. This clearly means they can’t be ignored, and their specific characteristics need to be considered when communicating with them.
However, in a study that Julia Friedl and I conducted, it transpired that not all employees younger than 30 are completely immersed in digital technology. Many of them didn’t grow up with computers as a part of their everyday life. Instead, other factors such as social class, infrastructure in the country of their origin, or professional occupation significantly affected the way digital natives consume digital technology. Therefore, the definition of a typical digital native should be regarded from a multilevel perspective. Possibly, instead of using the classical digital native/digital immigrant divide, there is another approach. Stroerger proposed using a new metaphor – the digital melting pot. The idea behind it is that people acquire digital skills through experience, and cannot be assigned into a group simply based on the year in which they were born. This means that older employees (often starting with lower levels of competency) can learn, change and become a part of the digital melting pot.
On the other side, our research surprised us, when younger employees showed a distinction in their communication preferences. Even though social media adoption is very present in their private life, they had a different attitude to their work life. There doesn’t seem to be a need for a complete immersion of social media in all areas of internal communication, for younger generations or older ones.
Still, even though digital natives may not want to be completely digital, change in the approach to internal communication is inevitable. In all areas of communication social networking platforms are becoming the most popular way of expressing personal opinions, knowledge sharing, building a strong community and content creation. Organizations should be careful not to miss the bandwagon, no matter when the majority of their employees were born.
Dr. Ana Tkalac Verčič is a professor at University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Economics and Business in Croatia.