By Andrew Walker Andrew Walker

The generation of digital natives have a different way of thinking, communicating and working. They’re bringing change into the workplace and combined with decentralised mass market computing, it means the traditional marketing department might just be facing an extinction event… let me explain.

My son Matthew is 5. Like most kids his age, he’s got a vivid imagination and he believes that I can turn into an alien from Ben 10, one of his favorite cartoons. What he finds totally unbelievable though, is that when I was a boy, telephones were attached to the wall by a cable and you couldn't play Angry Birds on them. My youngest, Adam, is 2. He can use the family iPad and my iPhone to unlock, swipe to a game and play interactive Dr. Suess games.

Digital NativeI was 37 years old before I learned how to do that. This is because I’m a digital immigrant, but they are digital natives - i.e. They were born into a world of decentralised  household computing whereas I (and everyone else over the age of 30) had to migrate to the digital world and learn the ‘language’ of social computing - as opposed to speaking it as our mother tongue.

When decentralised computing first began (by which I mean the rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s) the business world was run by the last generation of non-digital adults. Naturally, they categorised the internet and all its permutations as a niche for geeks and teenagers. They didn’t see the potential, they resisted innovation. Ironically they (like their parent’s generation who eschewed pop records and James Dean as a dangerous counterculture) wrote off the Internet as something ‘the kids’ did. Like their parents, they saw the digital counterculture as a phase rather than a multi-billion dollar global industry - which is, of course, what pop records and Hollywood brats became in the post war era.

Today the digital immigrant management is more savvy. It fully supports marketing departments to create websites, offer online client services, maybe even have a twitter account. But it’s still missing the big picture. Digitising traditional sales & marketing departments, customer services or web-conferencing meetings that used to happen in person, is a waypoint on a much bigger journey that will render the old ‘departmental’ business model obsolete. There’s two reasons for this - firstly, the working habits of digital natives are a new paradigm for many of us older folks. Secondly, it’s a question of scalability.

Let’s tackle the second point first, because it’s really simple. Let’s assume Twitter (or whatever the next big thing is) becomes a place where pretty much everyone is pushing out content. That’s not a bold assumption, every media outlet from TV channels to newspapers does that already, as does a majority of retail brands, charities, government departments and politicians around the globe. It’s hard to envisage a marketing department that could handle responding to 10,000 tweets a day… the compliance implications and operational overheads make that prospect pretty hard to implement. However, having 1000 members of staff who sent 10 tweets per day during their coffee breaks or lunch hour is easy to imagine because it’s already happening for their private social activities. So, the logical answer to the scale problem is to lose the centralised control of departmental organisation and let the staff do what comes naturally to them anyway.

The first point, regarding the habits of digital natives, addresses the question point 2 raises:

How does a financial institution risk letting their staff off the leash like that to facilitate scaled-up, decentralised communications and operations?

The answer again, is pretty simple. Digital natives think differently. They’re not like the older folks. They don’t think what they say and do online is somehow different from what they say and do in person. They don’t fall into the trap of thinking they can tweet without consequences, or they can post pictures of themselves to Facebook without anyone they know at work seeing it. What we call ‘social media’ they call ‘life’. What we call ‘networking’ they call ‘work’. What we think of as ‘news’ they see as a ‘news feed’. What we call ‘marketing’ they call ‘chat’. When we see ‘data’ they see ‘advice’. It’s a different world.

We used to ask knowledgeable friends for advice on purchases, but digital natives regard data points such as Facebook ‘likes’ or Amazon star ratings as the same thing. Where we used to share contacts or pass out business cards at events, digital natives ‘friend’ and ‘follow’ people whose digital footprint locates them within their area of interest. In their world everything is inter-operable  not just hardware and software but social lives and work. They know more people from a wider diversity of cultures and age groups than the immigrant generation possibly could, and that changes the way they understand the opportunities life presents. From a business perspective, sales and marketing, collaboration and supplier selection in the digital native world are 24/7 functions of living their lives, not 9-5 departments and projects.

I guess that means that ten years from now, regardless of your job title, everyone will be in marketing, network management and sales just by coming to work… and ‘coming to work’ will mean switching your phone on. Embracing this change in working culture is hard. Many of us are still laying eggs and sunning ourselves, oblivious to the little furry things at our feet that have live offspring and spend the day in underground burrows. But one day, those little things will put our fossilised remains in a museum. My advice is to go native.