One of the comments that I hear tossed around these days is how those entering the workforce now (AKA “new associates”, “new paralegals”, “new project assistants”) will be “computer savvy” or “better equipped” for things like online research, Web 2.0, or the virtual workplace. I try to chime in with my opinion that those that believe this are mistaking “comfort and familiarity” with “skill”. For example, a new associate may have great skills when it comes to driving a six-speed Ferrari on the mean streets of “Need for Speed”, but can he or she transfer those skills to an actual Ferrari on the mean streets of Los Angeles? The skills are not automatically transferable, and you’d probably end up with either a few scratches and dents or a blown transmission than someone that can parallel park the car by sliding it in with a 180 degree slide.

Andrea DiMaio over at the Gartner Blog Network penned a great post on “Why Digital Immigrants May Be Better Off Than Digital Natives” where she eloquently states:

The common wisdom says that they [Digital Natives] are better at socializing and crowdsourcing, but are they? Do they gather their collective intelligence when they realize that they cannot solve problems alone, or do they just do so, outsourcing their individual efforts to the power of the collective, living the dream of a world where nobody is really accountable because everybody else is?
I think that we [Digital Immigrants] have been celebrating and cocooning digital natives for too long. What lies ahead of us are very uncertain times, where the ability, willingness and courage to tackle problems individually is as important as the ability to engage others (the “collective”).

Well said! DiMaio goes on to point out one of the biggest differences between Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives is the fact that we grew up with the understanding that even in the computer and online worlds, there was a scarcity of resources and we had to adapt and deal with the limited resources we had at our disposal. Digital Natives on the other hand do not have the same insights into the scarcity of resources. Digital Natives do not seem to see the shadow of the future where success is determined by what they know and how well they socialize and crowdsource their way to a solution, rather than by the coolness of “how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers they have.”

President Obama deflated the egos of the tech savvy graduates at the University of Virginia when he pointed out skills learned through entertainment do not always transfer to skills needed in the workforce today:

‘With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.’

 I should point out that Digital Immigrants were told by President Reagan that their PacMan skills could transfer into usable work skills:

‘I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.’ (Aug 8, 1983)

We soon learned that just because we could storm the castle and save Princess Zelda from her dragon captor all day long, but those skills weren’t very useful when learning to fly a jet. It’s nice that the current President doesn’t seem to be confusing technology and entertainment with knowledge and work skills.

  • I agree with the assessment that knowing how to play with a device or technology may not directly translate to knowing how to work productively with it.

    However, one serious leg-up the Natives have is with the comfort aspect. Older generations struggle to become comfortable with change. The younger XBox gang expects it. So although Immigrants tend to put tools to productive use, they struggle with constant change.

    I expect the Natives have the upper hand in this 'game.' All kids learn things by playing and when they grow up, they translate those skills to work.

    The Immigrants, on the other hand, might think about playing more frequently.

  • Hmm,

    I think that Greg raises interesting points in the original post and Toby does as well in his comment. I'm not sure that the issue should be who is more comfortable in the technological world or today or tomorrow or even who is more comfortable with change. Rather, I think that the issue is who has the ability to learn and transfer skills. I don't think that any particular cohort is necessarily any "better at" or "better prepared to" than members of any other cohort.

    Anyone who participates at all in the online world of today has used to change, indeed, oldsters like me have ridden more waves of change than anyone ever has. Kids today might have grown up in a world of constant change, but so did I, and I've spent thirty years riding the wave.

    No, the skill that I have is adaptability. I'm not convinced that because digital natives have had access to electronic toys for their entire lives that they are any more prepared for change in these tools than someone who has spent years riding the waves of change.

    I can't believe that I'm going to say this, but I think that Reagan expressed a healthier view of change than Obama did. Reagan say that the issue isn't the ability to use a particular tool, but the ability to deal with different circumstances that is the important skill; that what is an important skill or a transferable skill might not be immediately apparent. Obama sounds like he is trying to be the old grouch.

    Funny because Obama is tech savvy, maybe by slamming technology he is trying to sound serious. If so, I think that it backfired. I think that he sounds stogy and out of touch (like 40 years out of touch).

    What is important for both immigrants and natives is the ability to adapt to change. Again, I don't think that this ability / skill is the province of one group or another. I don't think that any group is better situated than another. An oldie who is adaptable is more prepared for the next decade than a native who might like his XBox but doesn't have curiosity about anything else.

    The skills to seek are curiosity and exploration and comfort with, and confidence about, change, no matter what arena in which they are expressed.

  • Anonymous

    I think both Presidents made excellent points and both seem to have missed excellent points. And both those made and those missed apply to the immigrant and the native. First of all, those with the good hand eye coordination did and do make great pilots, especially with today's UAV's. But translating that skill still takes tremendous effort and there is no substitute for knowledge when it come to the real world. And we all know that Pres. Obama does too know how to use an iPod and a Blackberry, and I'll wager even a PC and a video game console. But he's right that information as entertainment (think The Daily Show and its ilk) is doing harm to these people. They only think they know whats going on, but if they try to translate their knowledge of the world outside their little bubble then you end up with a mass uninformed populace. That is dangerous.

  • Interesting assessment. My digital native daughter and myself, a digital immigrant just completed an article on the topic, titled :”On Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: How the Digital Divide Affects Families, Educational Institutions, and the Workplace” and available at