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Who’s Better at IT? Younger Digital Natives or Older Digital Immigrants?

I was asked this question at a recent speaking engagement in Utah, and I’ve thought about it a bit more since then. “Digital natives” are people who grew up using digital technology; they used computers as children and so they never lived in a non-computer world. “Digital immigrants” grew up in a world that didn’t have computers, and they made the leap to the digital world as foreigners.

Each group brings its own advantages to IT.

Digital natives:

  • Are more intuitive about new technology. They more easily understand how to use digital devices and systems in their everyday lives.
  • Easily understand modality in user interfaces. It’s natural for them to see the same control used for different things in different contexts.
  • Naturally relate to parallel processing, since they already multi-task in their everyday lives.
  • Easily understand virtual metaphors like computer mice, virtual documents and avatars. The controls for video games like the Wii have taken virtual metaphors to a whole new level.
  • Have an inherent understanding of the advantages of mobile computing and being connected. Digital natives are never out of touch.
  • Want quick results.  They like projects which offer early benefit.
  • Use devices and apps as natural tools the same way that some people might use a hammer or a screwdriver.  Pick it up, use it, put it down.  No big deal.
  • Are better with interactive systems since all of their games, devices and systems are interactive.

Digital immigrants:

  • Understand the non-technology ways of doing things, and have a better appreciation for how and why things in our current business got to where they are.
  • Better relate to processes that contain a mix of manual and automated tasks, and have a better feel for the advantages and disadvantages of automating a process.
  • Can be better at applying non-digital models to digital systems because of the digital immigrants’ richer and more varied experience.
  • Are more detail focused, and are more likely to take a craftsman approach to systems design and building.
  • Have longer attention spans. They look for long-term solutions to their problems.
  • View systems and processes holistically — it’s much more than the devices and apps themselves.  Systems are designed to be comfortable for constant use — not necessarily for quick in-and-out efficiency.
  • Are better with non-interactive systems like large-scale data manipulation or transaction processing, or systems which require great reliability or scalability.

Together, the two groups can achieve great things. But is it really fair to ask which group is better? You can ask this about any two generations that grew up on different sides of a major paradigm shift. For example, were people who grew up without electricity better at mechanical design than “electrical natives?” Were people who grew up with a car better at social skills than “automotive immigrants?”

Ultimately, I don’t think one group is better than the other. The world changes, and each generation adapts to the needs of the new world. Inevitability, some people are slow to adapt and others adapt quickly. But it’s not necessarily younger people who adapt faster — it’s a function of the individual.

I believe that each younger generation will develop the skills they need to resolve the problems of the future. The approach may be different than the prior generation, but “better” isn’t the right word to use.  We learn, we grow, we evolve, we adapt to the new world in which we live.  The natives of one world become immigrants to the next.

Next: A Reaction to the Reader Responses I’ve Received on this Article

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  • Jeff Staddon October 22, 2009, 12:54 pm

    Having grown up in the first wave of virtual reality I’ve found that as I’ve aged I’ve increasingly developed values similar to the older non-virtual generations. The truth is that many of the values we associate with technology are simply the transient attributes the teen years.

    As the older waves of Digital Natives continue to age you will see more and more people in leadership roles that combine the technological comfort of a Digital Native with the mental maturity of a Digital Imigrant. The result I believe with be a revolutionary maturing of technology in a way we’ve never seen before.

    A great early example is stackoverflow.com. The guys behind that aren’t youngsters and the professionalism shows in the quality of design/thought. That’s just a taste of what’s coming.

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