· 3 min read · Features

Social media and HR: are you a digital native or a digital immigrant?


Ten years ago two new terminologies emerged. At the time little attention was paid to them, and certainly their future impact was lost on most senior management.

The two phrases in question - 'digital natives" and 'digital immigrants' - relate to two generations of employees. Not only are they poles apart from each other in their attitude to the workplace (even though they may be no more that five years apart in age), the former is having a significant bearing on HR strategies today and for the future. The new generation of employees, the digital natives, are those who have grown up in the digital age, cocooned in a world of electronic toys of which their previous generation knew nothing about until much later in life.

Digital immigrants, the majority of management today, did not grow up in the digital era. Certainly, they have become fascinated by, and adopted many of, the new technological developments, but they learned about technology, not learned with technology as the digital natives have done. The differences between the two have changed the employment landscape so emphatically that traditional forms of management are no longer applicable. Digital natives view the world in a completely different way, even to those who are possibly less than a decade older than them. It may surprise many to know that today's university graduates will probably have spent at least 50% more time using their digital toys than they did reading.

In India, China and Japan, that figure is thought to be even higher. Does this make them less intelligent or less educated than the previous generation? No it doesn't. It simply means that they learn in a different way and they bring this difference into the workplace. Digital natives live and work in a world where they receive information very fast. Graphics play an important role (certainly before text); they prefer the process of random access rather than sequential access (the same as comparing a cassette tape [sequential] with a CD [random]; they like to parallel process and multi-task; and they function best when networked.

Instant messaging, accessing social networks sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and others is a fundamental part of their lives. They just think and process information in a significantly different way to those of a previous generation. So what does this mean for HR? One of the key things is that corporations must re-evaluate their traditional systems of management and develop new and collaborative methods of working if they are to attract and retain good talent, utilising the mores of social media. With the advent of social media, communities are developed on informal relationships, which is the antithesis of the more formal structures seen in commercial and professional organisations.

These communities convey a real sense of freedom with few boundaries, resulting in this new generation of employees disengaging themselves from the hierarchical structures of industry and self organizing in a way which seems right to them.. Social media initiatives can have an extremely positive impact on both the internal and external communications of a corporation.

They can build and solidify relationships with employees and they can actively increase engagement with existing and potential clients. Yet this needs to be more clearly addressed - I recently attended a meeting of CIOs from a large multinational organisation where the debate was about the value and role of social media within the organisation.

The CIO of the leisure division made it clear that social media was not welcome in his part of the organisation as he could not trust his employees not to waste time and fool around. In contrast, the CIO of the media division actively encouraged the use of all types of social media and championed its value. This debate was heated but boiled down to each CIO's view of the relationship with employees and specifically ideas around trust and transparency. This was not a debate about technological issues but about fundamental management styles and principles.

Social media is changing the way in which acceptable working practices are developing. For the first time in over a century we are being forced to address the nature, value, role and function of leadership in organisations. Given the speed at which information can now be disseminated, a total rethink is vital to ensure everyone's expectations are met.

It is imperative that all those responsible for the recruitment, development and promotion of employees fully understand what it takes to manage in a more transparent, knowledgeable and highly connected world. For long-term success companies must start communicating directly with their market to build trust and enhance their reputations.

It all starts from within and how the leadership deals with their young digital native employees.

David Dumeresque (pictured), partner at executive search firm, Tyzack Associates.