Future Proof: IT and the Digital Native

They have grown up with computers in the home. Simultaneously surfing, messaging and texting while plugged into their Ipod, today’s digital natives astound their parents’ generation with their IT multi-tasking skills; so what do they have to learn? Donald H Taylor debunks the myth of the omniscient digital native, and highlights the vital IT skills of tomorrow.
The teen computer geek is the stuff of modern myth. We know that. We know that gamers are more likely to be over 25 than under, and almost as likely to be women as men. We also know that you don’t need acne to cut code – hence the current demographic scare over key retiring IT staff.
So how do we explain the persistence of a closely related myth – that the digital native will need no IT training?

Coined in 2001 by software CEO Marc Prensky, (www.marcprensky.com), a digital native is someone who – unlike us (ie those over 30) – has been brought up in the modern, computerised, always wired generation. Because of the amount of time they spend games playing and surfing the internet they not only learn differently, their minds are different – literally – to digital immigrants’.
The common reaction to the digital native stereotype is a mixture of awe and fear, which has led some to a false conclusion: that digital natives have nothing to learn about IT. They are just plain smarter than us with computers – scarily so.
But it ain’t so, and Prensky has never claimed it was.
In reality, anyone joining the workforce needs training in IT, no matter when they were born. (I still recall my shock at reading a CV from an application born after I graduated – I’m looking forward to getting one born in the new millennium soon.) Because no matter how quickly they pick things up, and how good they are with the applications they are familiar with, digital natives don’t know everything.

Specifically, they need training in three areas:
1. Applications skills
2. Information handling skills
3. Social IT skills
The first of these is less obvious than it seems. Applications skills? Don’t all kids leave schools today fluent in Microsoft Office? Well, no they don’t. Even at the most basic level they have either been badly taught, or picked up bad habits along the way, and will need to know for example:
• In Word Tables are usually better than Tabs for arranging data on a page (they are easier to re-format and alter).
• Your use of grammar, spelling and punctuation expresses your respect for the reader.
• PowerPoint is not a word processor. Nor is it a substitute for Flash.
• SUM() is not the only formula in Excel.
•  Excel is a fine spreadsheet. Is it not a database.
• Storing everything in ‘My Documents’ is not an adequate filing system. And giving document names that you can’t later remember doesn’t aid retrieval either.
This last point leads us to the second area where training remains necessary. Because the digital native has to date not used IT in a work environment they are often utterly unaware of the importance of information handling. The same, however, is often true of digital immigrants, who have never had to learn a formal discipline of finding, arranging and sorting information, and of making it available easily and to the right people.
Information handling skills requiring teaching include:
• Data storing: Where should you put data in an existing system, and if you’re setting up a file system, what should consider? Is it better to have lots of separate databases, or to meld them? How do you set up your information so that it can be retrieved usefully (almost everyone could use training on this)?
• Sharing data: Is it ever a good idea to save documents on your local hard drive. Who do you need to share files with, and when?
• Searching and data scepticism : Efficient use of Google and other search engines and techniques for cross-checking information.
• Data security: Digital natives are usually clued up on what makes a strong password, but often surprisingly naïve about the validity of online identities and urban digital myths.
This last point brings us to the third area of training. Both digital natives and digital immigrants will need training in social IT skills, but for different reasons. For the digital native, instant messaging, blogging and social networking tools such as MySpace and Twitter are second nature, and the rest of us can certainly learn something from their skill with these tools.
However, everyone needs to know how to use these tools well and appropriately. That includes:
• E-mail – not the how, but the when, what and to whom of using mail, as well as when not to use mail. In this ‘fire and forget world’, don’t forget: ‘e-mail never dies’.
• Networking software etiquette – it’s like e-mail, and it’s like talking to people, but it’s different. There are unwritten rules, you need to know them, just as you need to know which tool to choose when (and remember that the phone is a valid choice, too).
• What information should you share? You interact with colleagues, workmates and friends differently – do the same online.
Much of usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s excellent piece on blogging (www.useit.com/alertbox/weblogs.html) applies here, especially point 9:
“Whenever you post anything to the Internet – whether on a weblog, in a discussion group, or even in an email – think about how it will look to a hiring manager in ten years.”

Soft skills
Are the IT trainers of today adequately equipped to train on these skills? Many are, and the rest can certainly pick up the knowledge required to bridge any gaps, but that isn’t the issue.

Apart from the bread and butter of applications training, you will notice that I predict a shift in training’s remit from a knowledge base (how to do something) to context training (when and when you do it). This is much more like soft skills training, and it may be that some trainers are less comfortable with this. Others, however, will consider it a blessed relief and a positive step. Whatever the reaction, be sure that we will still need IT training in the future.