The Business Generation Gap

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The Business Generation Gap

By Michelle Manafy

Individuals and businesses today face a massive and growing generation gap. As this “digital native” generation – those born after 1985 – has grown up immersed in digital technologies such as mobile phones, gaming, and social networks. As they become our dominant employee and consumer base, those in previous generations must learn to navigate a radically altered landscape to succeed in business.

Here are five key insights into the digital native generation – and how it relates to your business.

1. They live publicly online. The notion of privacy didn’t change overnight with the advent of the Internet. For better or worse, we’ve seen an evolution of privacy. It was once the norm to keep one’s dirty laundry out of site. This gave way to a generation that would share from the relative privacy of a therapist’s couch. More recently, we have witnessed the era of talk shows and reality TV. With the digital native, businesses must address the expectations of those raised in social networking environments, in which they routinely share every detail of their activities and opinions with a limitless group of friends.

Tip: Often, businesses are hamstrung by outdated notions of privacy. They fail to recognize and capitalize on the digital native’s openness. We need to understand the native’s natural inclination to live publicly to guide these activities so that they are consistent with business objectives. We can also build business models that leverage this openness, both in the way we structure employee activities as well as customer interactions.

2. They share knowledge. Once we recognize that the natives are living out loud, we can begin to understand how this behavior shapes their lives. Despite a good deal of hyperbole about social media and marketing via Twitter and social networks, many organizations limit or ban the use of social networks on the job. This demonstrates a fear of exposure through inappropriate use of social technologies and shows a lack of understanding of how to manage and channel the knowledge sharing inclination of this generation.

Tip: Beyond crafting guidelines to regulate the appropriate use of social networks on the job, proactive use of socially mediated, open, collaborative ways of working can help companies capture otherwise transient knowledge assets. The old adage was that knowledge is power; for the digital native knowledge shared is power.

3. They believe transparency yields trust. Because digital natives live publicly and value knowledge sharing, organizations that demonstrate a similar level of openness will be the ones that attract and retain them as employees and customers. Digital natives make new friends, followers, and fans every day. However it is important to keep in mind that it takes a lot of work to maintain the genuine relationship required with the digital native. If they dislike your brand, they will make it publicly known. Luckily, the reverse is also true. Today’s ultra-connected consumer, raised to share and monitor sentiment, may seem like a fickle friend, but that’s only if organizations don’t stay involved by listening, responding, owning up and doing the work it takes to maintain a genuine long term relationship.

Tip: When it comes to attracting and retaining this generation as employees, it is useful to know that today’s best employees are also monitoring opportunities and discussing employers online. For recruiting, this can provide insights into whom the best, brightest, and most social media savvy are. And for employee retention, employers can leverage these same tools and tendencies to make sure that they are competitive in the market and respond to concerns.

4. They are timely, not time managed. While most people are painfully aware that the line between “at work” and “off duty” is increasingly blurred, for the native this will be taken to a whole new level. The digital native will move beyond what previous generations called a Life/Work balance to a new Life/Work integration.

For the digital native, work and social activities are ever-present. Digital natives may log more hours at their computers during the course of a day than those in previous generations, but switch back and forth between work and leisure in short bursts. Though this may strike some managers as inappropriate, it helps to realize that while an older worker might head to the break room or a coworker’s desk to clear their head, natives are more likely to “info-snack” or catch up on a quick burst of Facebook updates.

Tip: Companies that emphasize collaboration, learning and socialization will see key benefits in comparison to companies that focus solely on productivity. The native doesn’t need to play all day to be happy. However, there’s no reason that work inside an organization can’t be constructively influenced by the expectations of the younger workforce.

5. They believe in interactions, not transactions. Social networking, social media – with all this socializing, one might begin to wonder how any business ever gets done. Suffice it to say, it does and it will continue. However organizations that develop good social skills will have a competitive advantage over those that remain socially inept. One quality that will be essential for success going forward is recognizing that this generation is not interested in traditional transaction-based business models – which focus on exchanges of money for goods and services. This is a generation that is interested in interactions.

Tip: Unlike a transaction-based system, an interactive one is based upon social currency. All aspects of business will need to embrace interaction, from marketing and CRM to product and content creation. This generation doesn’t just want to do business with companies it views as friends; it wants to do business with itself and expects to see its ideals and objectives reflected in the companies it chooses to do business with.

While there are many digital immigrants who are whole-heartedly adopting digital tools, it is not simply emerging technologies that must be mastered. A lifelong immersion has affected the mindset, behavior, and expectations of the digital native generation. To succeed in business with them, others must understand it and build models based on this new culture.

Michelle Manafy is an award-winning writer and editor, speaker, mentor and director of content for FreePint, Ltd. She is the co-author of Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step With the Generation That’s Transforming the Way Business Is Done. For more information, please visit

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