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Why digital natives need support if they’re to transform the workplace

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The millennial generation have quite a hefty weight on their shoulders.  There are many that think that this digital native generation will herald a new dawn in the workplace.  Their love of social tools and practices will drive through changes in how we work, whether in removing the requirements of time and place, or the demand for more frequent feedback and greater collaboration.

Is it fair to heap such expectations upon them?  Is it even realistic?  A study from last year for instance, highlighted that many young employees lacked the collaboration skills required of them in a social workplace.

Indeed, enterprise social network usage in the study organization was highest amongst the older members of the workforce.  There was a lack of comfort amongst the millennial generation in using the tools they’re so familiar with in their personal lives, in a professional context.

This was followed by a second study this year that was conducted as part of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s exploration of the skills gap between academia and the workplace.  The study found that softer skills, such as collaboration, were often sorely missing amongst the cohort of graduates entering the workforce.

Sadly, it seems as though this shortage is not being addressed by our school system.  A recent study set out to explore whether digital natives were skilled at using digital tools for work related tasks (rather than gaming and social networking).

The research team analyzed a bunch of teachers and over 1,000 middle school aged students from 18 different schools in the US.  The students were believed to be digital natives, and therefore fully conversant and comfortable with the use of digital tools.Both the students and their teachers were heavy users of technology in their personal lives, but the students lagged some way behind when it came to using these tools inside the classroom.Indeed, the study showed that many lacked familiarity with IT, and many struggled with the kind of social tools they used at home when asked to use them in a class context.These problems were not shared by their teachers however, who were much better at adopting the tools to meet their classroom challenges.

The researchers suggest the heart of the problem is that students are not given the opportunity to practice using technology for productive means.  They suggest that teachers need to give students great opportunities to use digital tools to enhance how they learn collectively.

“School-age students may be fluent in using entertainment or communication technologies, but they need guidance to learn how to use these technologies to solve sophisticated thinking problems,” the researchers say. “The school setting is the only institution that might create the needs to shape and facilitate students’ technology experience. Once teachers introduce students to a new technology to support learning, they quickly learn how to use it.”

It makes initiatives such as the partnership between IBM and York University announced last year so important.  The partnership saw a social incubation unit created whereby up to 400 students can gain experience using the kind of social business tools IBM hope will eventually become a central part of every workplace.

If the digital generation are to transform the workplace in the way so many hope they will, it seems much more needs to be done to equip them for the challenge.

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