The word digital is used constantly these days, whether we’re talking about how we use digital to reach audiences or better engage with them, or we’re discussing the latest popular apps or platforms. Digital, as a moniker, is everywhere.
Periodically it’s suggested that we’ll soon reach a point where the word will disappear, that digital won’t be discussed as a separate ‘thing’ but will be absorbed into everyday life. Personally I think we’re some way off that point, when technology is so fundamentally transforming our lives, we have to have a separate way to talk about it.
But there is one digital related phrase that I would like to see killed off: ‘digital natives’. For those of you unfamiliar with the term it was coined in 2001 by the American education consultant and writer Marc Prensky, in an essay he wrote about the failure of schools to understand the importance of digital technologies. Let’s be clear, it was a valid point he was making and a coherent argument, namely the idea that those born after 1980 (a world that contained online bulletin boards and the start of the modern internet) look at the world in a different way to those born before it. But subsequently the phrase has been commandeered by the marketing industry and reduced down to a far too simplistic idea, that younger people are inherently much better at doing digital because they have been brought up with the tools and platforms. That they just ‘get’ digital in a way that older people can’t. But this is a false premise and one that in many organisations I’ve worked with often leads people down the wrong path.
In organisations the belief that ‘digital natives’ hold the answer typically creates two problems, firstly, simply understanding how a tool works is not an adequate skillset for developing a multifaceted, effective strategy. If you were in charge of the supply distribution strategy for a multinational retailer, you wouldn’t put a 22 year old in charge simply because they can drive a car.
Secondly, it creates a loss of confidence in others. I have worked with many marketing managers who shamefully confide that they don’t really ‘get’ digital, then they go on to say something along the lines of, “but it’s OK, we have Jack/Jane, they’re 22 so they do our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram”. These are usually talented marketers with many years experience at a senor level and yet somehow digital has reduced them to feeling as though, these days, they can’t properly do their job. This is patently nonsense. Of course you have to have some level of technical understanding but only as much as if you’re printing a brochure and you need to understand about different weights of paper or types of ink.
Effective digital activity comes about not as a result of understanding how to use various platforms or apps but when we are willing to take risks, experiment and most importantly, tie everything into the overall organisational objectives and internal culture. Being able to do this successfully means having a certain mindset that is immune to age. I’ve seen young people with closed minds and older people with open minds and vice versa.
This is why the DMA is such a great programme, because it encourages experimentation and starts from the premise that you cannot know the outcome of something until you try it. This kind of approach makes age irrelevant. It also hopefully helps to lay to rest the notion of ‘digital natives’ being the only standard bearers for your organisation’s digital future. Interestingly Marc Prensky subsequently ditched the term ‘digital native’ in favour of ‘digital wisdom’ and while there is some debate about the way in which he used it, it’s a term I think we can all, more usefully, embrace.