Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Digital Natives and corporates

I've been writing a presentation I'm giving on Mobile Futures for the Netsafe Security Symposium in Wellington this week.

As part of it I'm going over some themes which I think will shape the services of the future and come up (again) on the general theme of Digital Natives (or Digiborigines) . To be honest I had heard the term before and hadn't equated it with my own belief that there is another generation of people coming behind us who have grown up around digital technology, who intuitively pick up new services or devices faster and see possibilities (and rubbish) faster than we do.

The wiki definition does it some justice but the original piece of thinking about it is much more insightful for me. Mark Prensky does a great job of distinguishing between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants (those who have immigrated to the new world). His thoughts on accent and education are really compelling and explain a lot. How could a teen who lives on the Net possibly take anything seriously from a teacher who doesn't have a PC at home, teaches from books and is completely linear in his thinking ? It's much more than a generation gap at work here.

If you take this a step further and apply it to corporate structures in technology companies it means a few things(what the hell, I'll use Telecom as an example)

1. The people who run strategy teams come from classic backgrounds (ie linear thinking) and while they are incredibly intelligent, probably think when they see kids communicating online 'they're just playing with stuff - we'll never make money out of that'. None of the work on services that a Native would use gets past strategy unless it pays back in a classical sense.

2. If you're lucky, the exec team members have kids who are the pre-teen and teen level who are starting to live their life online and see the trends but think 'well, these are kids of people who are earning several hundred thousands per year, so that can't be normal'. They get the fact that things are changing but can't translate it into actions.

3. There is a real need, in at least the next 3-5 years for 'translators' to sit at senior decision making levels who can see what is happening with the Digital Natives and ensure that investment and product development is happening in the right areas. This is a massive responsibility for the new GMs at this layer - and will fundamentally decide if Telecom is ready for what will happen in 5 years time when the Natives are not only our customers but also the people running the company at this level. If those people don't have these skills, they will need to recognise it quickly and put in place people around them who do have them. Get it wrong, and there will be no market for what we are selling.

The danger of where we are at presently in NZ is that there a lot of people who think they can translate between the Immigrants and the Natives but actually can't. I'll take the example of speaking another language - I can speak French ok, I learned it at school for 5 years and have had lots of practice speaking with other French speakers here and in France. Putting aside the fact that it takes me at least a glass of red wine for my accent to sound right, and I get really tired after about an hour of full on speaking, there are some key questions that need to be answered.

Does being able to speak French make me French, with all the cultural differences between being kiwi and French? Nope.
Does that mean I can see deep insights into what would resonate with a Francophile ? At a push - if I see the nuances correctly - and it requires all my other skills in reading people and behaviour to make that happen. And don't forget it's only ever a snapshot because I don't live in that world and see it evolving.

It's why I think one of the smartest things Wayne Boyd is doing at the moment (and watch the video on who he is looking for) is looking for new Board members with very specific skills in FMCG and Media. We need to know how to speak these languages (as a minimum) and translate (as an optimum) to make sure we keep pace with the competition.

Taking this to its extreme, possibly the smartest thing that Fairfax have done in buying trademe has not been keeping the marauders from the gate of their advertising revenues for a few more years - they've got someone in Sam Morgan who at least understands Digital Natives and, if they could keep him interested without the corporate rubbish, have someone who could (and should) shape their direction so they are well placed when the Natives get out of school and start spending large like we all do...

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