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The rise of the digital native and the implications for IT organisations

I’ve had a very hectic travel schedule since the beginning of September (those of you who follow my tweets and LinkedIn posts may well already be aware of that!) and this has partly been due to the autumn conference season, where I’ve been presenting an overview of Snow Software’s 2019 research. This is a snapshot of the research that informs our product strategy, and the presentation touches on a number of topics that we’ve been looking at over the past year or so in relation to our vision of ‘providing complete insight and manageability across all technology’.

The main focus of this research was the technologies we are seeing that are impacting (or believe will impact) many of our customers. Given that this research is being carried out within an R&D function of a technology company, that’s hardly surprising. But it is also limiting. While we’re careful to remember, as Steve Jobs famously said: “You've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology," spend time talking to our customers about their business and technology challenges, as it’s easy for us to get most excited about the technology.

“You've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology" - Steve Jobs

We are very aware of the challenges and opportunities that face organisations as they attempt to understand and manage the increasing volume of increasingly diverse technology within their organisations. Last year we introduced our research on the three profiles of Technology Consumer, Decision Maker and Guardian, and we believe that these are still relevant – in fact they are even more so, and the role of the Technology Guardian will continue to grow and change as the influence of Generation S expands the pool of decision-makers to cover almost all technology consumers. We’re seeing an increasing need for deep technology intelligence to support these decision-makers as they select the best solutions for their business needs.

What is (or more precisely who are) Generation S?

In mid-June I came across a LinkedIn post pointing to some research by Betsy Burton (my one-time mentor when we were both at Gartner) of independent analyst firm Aragon Research that inspired me. After I read the blog post, I had a chat with Betsy to make sure I was on the right track, as it seemed clear to me that this insight got to the heart of some of the issues that we’d been encountering in our own research.

As we investigated all the technologies that organisations are going to need to understand and manage (and all the technologies we might want to use ourselves), it felt that the human element was being over-simplified. While using cohorts to look at behavioural changes has it’s uses, the 15-year divisions that are normally used to classify cohorts with similar social, cultural and economic influences didn’t seem to work for Millennials.

Generation

Dates

Baby Boomers

1945-1964

Generation X

1965-1980

Millennials (Generation Y)

1981-1996

Generation Z

1997-2010

Generation A

2010 -?

The term Millennial was coined by Neil Howe and William Strauss in 1991 but didn’t really enter more general use until 1998-2000. It describes a generation that entered the workplace at the turn of the millennium who were seen as having different economic, social and political influences from the previous generation (Gen X). While dividing the population into generational cohorts is useful for research and marketing purposes, the generalisations we make about them can also be problematic. I spoke to Simon Walker, whose 2008 research with Talent Smoothie into what were still often referred to as Generation Y looked at the first of the Millennials to enter the workplace and what they wanted from work, and he cautioned that it is important to remember that “People are as diverse within a generation as they are between them, so exploring diverse expectations and preferences through conversations and suspecting assumption is probably the most helpful strategy!”

“People are as diverse within a generation as they are between them, so exploring diverse expectations and preferences through conversations and suspecting assumption is probably the most helpful strategy!” - Simon Walker

But think of how far we’ve come since then in terms of technology. While Millennials are known at the ‘internet generation’ and they have always had access to it in the workplace, they are not true digital natives – after all, those who are in their late 30s and entering their 40s grew up with VHS video and cassette tapes! There are a number of reports that suggest that Millennials now make up somewhere between 35% and 50% of the workforce (the variation may depend on the countries included or the dates being used to define the generations), as the youngest of them have now left education and moved into the workforce.

Betsy coined the term ‘Generation S’ to describe the younger half of the Millennial cohort – the people who grew up with the iPhone (released in 2007), and the consequent instant access to services that it provided through apps, as well as the sharing economy that developed around it (Uber, Airbnb etc). Betsy  identifies the fact that they expect information and analytics to be immediately available, and to be able to source products and services directly rather than follow bureaucratic processes – and that having grown up with prosperity and choice they are prepared to find alternatives if vendors or employers don’t work in a way that works for them.

These are exactly the people who are driving the accelerating move of IT decision-making out into the business. In the past it was generally a few mavericks who were deliberately bypassing IT and procurement to implement shadow IT (all those servers under desks), or business managers who saw SaaS as a way around the long lead times for IT projects (as well as the obfuscation they often encountered from IT professionals who wanted to maintain an air of complexity and mystery around what IT involves). As Generation S starts to have real influence in the workplace by virtue of their numbers and the fact that they are starting to rise up the management layers of organizations this is changing. These are the first of the true digital natives, having used the technologies we now see in the workplace since their teens. They are comfortable with using technology in a way that previous generations are not, and while some may take much of it for granted without understanding it, they do not regard it as a highly specialised black art but more of a commodity to be utilised.

The accelerating pace of technological change may mean that we can no longer look at cohorts of 15 years as being generally similar – it may be that we need to identify significant technological developments as catalysts for changes in generational characteristics. As Generation Z is starting to follow Generation S into the workplace, we’re going to need to understand what makes them different – and we also need to remember that we can’t assume that what we observe in today’s Generation Z employees will be relevant when the current cohort of 10-year-olds finally join the workforce.

In the meantime, spend more time with your Generation S employees – listen to what they want from the workplace, how they think it can be changed and improved. Not only will this provide value in terms of improving staff retention, but it may also be key to the survival of your business in helping it to innovate and develop or deliver products and services in a way that the upcoming technology consumers want to consume them.

If you’d like to speak to one of us at Snow to understand how to get complete insight and manageability across all your technology, please contact us here.