Managing Digital Natives, Why Your HR Practices May Not Work

The term ‘digital native’ was first coined in 2001 by Mark Prensky to describe a generation that has been raised with new technology, in the form of video games, smartphones, social media, and information platforms. They are known as Generation Me, Net Generation, Thumb Generation, the Millennials or Generation Z – born after 1995.

Digital natives have been raised within a digital culture that determines how they think and act. The brains of digital natives are not physically changed, but it would be accurate to suggest that their thought patterns are in contrast with those who taught and guided them, even if their teachers were digital immigrants.

These tensions may not only exist in schools and universities but can carry over to employment and employment relationships. Some identifiable traits can be associated with digital natives, who now make up approximately 20% of the workforce. Perhaps because their lives are dominated by screens, Gen Z workers prefer face-to-face contact more than other groups, with research indicating 40% like daily contact with their bosses. Feeling supported and having positive working relations are rated highly and they are strongly tied to and influenced by social media not only in their purchasing behaviours but also when seeking work.

How Digital Natives Will Change the Future of Work

As more of the Baby Boomer generation leaves the workforce and more from Generation Z enter it, leaders of the future will increasingly be digital natives. This will lead to some very significant changes, some of which are already underway. We can consider the structure of organizations – centralised and hierarchical systems will give way to ecosystems and flatter structures where participation in decision-making is diverse and emphasised to a greater extent in self-organising teams. Measures of success will also be more diverse and will be less focused on profit as the absolute goal and more on purpose, self-actualisation and sets of positive values. Understanding and creating organizational cultures that promote these aspects will be the key to attracting talented workers and therefore remaining relevant in the modern world.

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Change is also becoming evident in the language used by companies when advertising positions. While overt statements of preference (such as Facebook founder Zuckerberg’s that digital natives are smarter) and ads stating a preference for ‘digital native’ is increasingly used. If organizations have a high demand for this generation, they must know what they are getting, in terms of characteristics as well as workplace skills. Research has indicated that this generation is more narcissistic and focused on the self. Digital natives feel less bound by duty and more by fun-seeking; they enjoy the freedom and avoid arduous tasks. There is a stronger sense of entitlement and of impatience, which also brings energy and a drive that can overcome obstacles.

Human resource strategies must be moulded to accommodate the generation that will dominate organizations in the future. While they may seek face-to-face contact, digital natives do not necessarily enjoy feeling dependent, and it would be a mistake if a self-assertive and self-sufficient digital native is placed at or close to the bottom of a hierarchical ladder. Creative instincts should be encouraged, even when that includes interactions across organizational boundaries. Loyalty to the organizational brand should only be expected if the brand lives up to the promises it implies – employees will relate their working experiences and opinions across social media platforms openly, less inclined to feelings of loyalty to their organizations.

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Impact on Human Resource Practice

Simply believing in the benefits of modern technology does not guarantee a successful human resource practice. It requires a good understanding of the digital native’s mind-set – it may mean blurring distinctions between what is acceptable and what is not. For example, it is key to understand the issue of multitasking across private and company use of technology, while CSR is crucial to digital natives, ambition and career progression is also often a top priority. Values must be meaningful for them, rather than just an avenue for promoting the organization.

Building a Multigenerational Organization:  Fusing digital natives with digital immigrants to build great companies

Bringing together employees from different generations has always been a challenge for organizations and their HR strategies. The 21st century must be prepared to forge a symbiotic balance between the “oldies” and the digital natives while creating a mutually reinforcing work atmosphere. Burke Turner offers some suggestions for achieving the fusing of digital natives and digital immigrants. One is reverse mentoring – managers seeking guidance and insights from younger colleagues on what the drivers of ambition and expectations in the modern world are. Another is developing a collaborative mindset that is not bound by status or lines of hierarchy, and the last is to be realistic and tolerant of mistakes and to encourage an environment of creative risk.

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Digital natives have not just been raised with modern technology, but also within a postmodern and post-industrial environment that is questioning, creative, diverse and confident. They can bring great benefits to organizations, which can be developed to build a positive and sustainable future for the organization.


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  2. Presnky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants  
  3. Oudijk, Annick. (July 25, 2019) “The Next Generation: Who Are They And What Do They Need?” Factorial. 
  4. Loehr, Anne. (December 6, 2017) “How Digital Natives Will Shape the Future of Work” HuffPost 
  5. Campbell, Andy. Is your HR strategy ready for the Digital Natives? HR Management  
  6. Page Executive. How Generation Z is Redefining the Role of the HR Leader. 
  8. Matthews, Rachel. (April 6, 2017). “The struggles of managing digital natives.” Bray Leino Learning 
  9. Sarah F. Gale. (September 7, 2018). “What HR Leaders Need to Know About Generation Z” Workforce. 
  10. Minicozzi, Karen. (June 30, 2016) “Empower and engage: How HR can win the talent war in the digital age.” Raconteur.
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