Digital natives are increasingly moving into leadership and changemaker roles – what is the impact on the way organisations innovate and develop programs of work?

The face of the Australian workplace is changing rapidly. While baby boomers are increasingly moving into retirement and Gen X-ers are taking up positions in the c-suite, a new cohort of tech-savvy Gen Y, millennial and Gen Z workers are shaking up organisations nationwide.

This significant demographic shift is already underway, with a growing influx of young digital natives — those who have grown up from birth with smart devices, super-speed internet and social media — swelling the ranks of workers across Australia.

But first things first — who exactly are digital natives? According to US author and academic Marc Prensky, who’s credited with coining the term in 2001, they are workers who “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” because they have spent their entire life surrounded by technology.

It’s the influx of such tech-oriented workers that’s having a profound effect on the culture of companies across developed nations, including in Australia, as digital natives and so-called digital immigrants increasingly collide. And this impact is not set to slow down any time soon. Deloitte, for instance, predicts that by 2030 millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — will make up 75 per cent of the workforce.

It forecasts that as millennials grow into managerial roles, their priorities, such as working for more than just a pay packet as well as their more democratic leadership styles, will have a “huge impact” on organisations in coming years.

Innovation, too, is another area where the impact of digital natives is being felt, with digital natives starting to shape how organisations develop, manage, and challenge it. In particular, young workers — in contrast with baby boomers or those from Gen-X – tend to view tech as the key solution to many of the social and business challenges we face today.

Digital natives: a driving force for innovation

Indeed, when it comes to innovation, digital natives are wired very differently to older workers and put their faith in tech as a driver or critical business and social breakthroughs.

In the current context, this is clear as companies grapple with innovative tech such as social media platforms like Airbnb and Uber, driverless cars, blockchain and on-demand economy start-ups pioneered in many cases by digital native founders and entrepreneurs.

Such innovative work is due, in part, to the outlook and characteristics typical of the digital native worker. Digital natives, for instance, understand the importance — and business utility — of big data. They enter organisations with highly developed IT skills and know, usually in far more depth than older managers, how data, if harvested and harnessed correctly, can enable prediction and decision-making that leads to business breakthroughs.

Digital natives, due to their tech-saturated upbringing, are also uniquely placed to leverage tech to drive innovation on the client experience side. That’s because this young cohort of workers has grown up with rapidly changing trends in technology and hence are familiar with the need to keep pace with rapidly shifting demands from consumers. Simply put, they understand that what was once considered excellent can become good and then mundane in a matter of months as competitors update their digital offerings.

Additionally, digital natives are committed to experimentation on the tech-side, which often leads to business breakthroughs, but also involves the risk of failure. Instead of aiming at perfection, digital natives engage teams early and often in product development to keep them on track, own up to the possibility of failure, and acknowledge that being first to market with a product is often more important than a flawless, but slower, offering.

Digital natives boost business transformation

In an era where firms must embrace digital innovation to not only thrive but survive, it’s increasingly important to incorporate and utilise the unique attributes of digital natives. Indeed, according to Bain & Company’s 2019 Digital Insights survey, 54 per cent of senior executives polled thought digital disruption would significantly impact their sector in the next five years, making digital natives’ skills and expertise more important than ever.

The survey, which polled more than 1,200 senior executives earlier this year, pointed to several innovation benefits to a workforce with a large digital native presence, including that they help companies become fast at making decisions quickly enough to stay ahead of the market and assist in executing plans with the speed needed for corporate success.

It also pointed to digital natives’ ability to assist in defining digital “at the right level around a small number of trends that really matter in their industry”. They also excel, according to the global management consultancy, at orchestrating digital processes and getting the right assets in place to successfully scale digital transformation across their enterprise.

Does tech supersede traditional strategy and people solutions on innovation?

While the technological expertise of digital natives is a game-changer when it comes to innovation, it is not the end of the story.  In fact, there undoubtedly remains significant space for people-based strategies to achieve real, and lasting, innovation.

After all, innovation is best conceptualised of as a way of thinking that can be adopted by organisations irrespective of the age — or technological skills — of their workers. To this end, innovation seeks to challenge the status quo and encourage curiosity, multidisciplinary teamwork and resilience to continue ideating and experimenting, irrespective of age.

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