Back in 2001, a new term ‘Digital Native’ entered the dictionary, describing a person for whom digital technologies already existed when they were born, and having grown up with technology such as the Internet, mobile phones and laptops they consider them as a way of everyday life.

Their dependence on the Internet and the tools it is enabling cannot be ignored—in fact a recent survey of 16 to 24 year olds by online charity YouthNet found that 75% of them felt they ‘couldn’t live’ without the Internet.

These ‘Digital Natives’ are now entering the workplace and bringing their life-long exposure to digital technologies. Having been exposed to the Internet at such a young age, their understanding and expectations of technology in a business environment is very different.

So how does a digital native’s view of technology differ from their predecessors? Whereas the older generation might view technologies such as Instant Messaging (IM) or video conferencing as a novelty, these digital natives now consider it an integral part of life. If the 90’s pre-Web 2.0 social hub of the office was the water cooler, the new place to be seen and ‘network’ is now Facebook, Twitter and other social networking services.

While most businesses recognise they need to embrace new technologies and move with the times to remain competitive, the majority of management teams and IT infrastructure predates this fast moving digital age. How can companies harness the skills of their new ‘digital-savvy’ workers and bring their workplace practices into the 21st century without disrupting existing processes and alienating the older generation of staff?

Rules 2.0—the new workplace

While there’s no doubt that the advent of social media technologies has changed the game for businesses, there is still uncertainty amongst businesses as to how they can fit these into their operations and ultimately benefit from them.

There is also concern that employees are spending too much time on sites like Facebook and Twitter during working hours. Research from ScanSafe in July 2009 found that the number of companies blocking or restricting access to such sites had grown by a quarter in the first six months of the year. However, before a business decides that these sites are waste of their employee’s time, it’s important to first take a step back and investigate the advantages of utilising these tools.

In the past, networking involved business cards, elevator pitches and hospitality events. Today, people can connect with colleagues, prospective customers and suppliers worldwide through the click of a mouse. Sites such as LinkedIn have created communities for professionals with shared interests and provide a new channel for networking.

If businesses welcome LinkedIn with open arms, why not its newer peers such as Twitter? A glance through the age of a sample of Twitter users reveal that the service has attracted a more grownup demographic—a fact echoed by Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2009, which reveals an influx of senior level professionals, aged 35-54 to the service.

Such everyday exposure to these online communities like Twitter has led to a shift in acceptable methods of engaging customers and prospects. Whereas previously cold calling or untargetted email may have been objectionable, many accept that they are inevitably going to be approached or engaged in conversation online in the Web 2.0 world. Business trailblazers have recognised this, and are leading the change in methods of stakeholder engagement.

However Web 2.0 social networking isn’t just externally facing—with the use of IM, video conferencing, Facebook Groups, and Twitter—geographically diverse teams within the same organisation can be brought together.

Implementing a social strategy 

With all these benefits in mind, the common challenge for today’s business is where to start with integrating these tools; not just for digital natives, but for everyone. Firstly, before rolling out a social media programme, the business must develop a robust internal policy that clearly outlines the guidelines of using the new tools.

Then, to ensure that the business is getting the best out of social media applications, it needs to turn to its new recruits. Whereas in previous generations they would spend many months ‘learning the ropes’ from colleagues and management who’d spent years accumulating their skills in the workplace, it’s now the turn of the digital natives to teach colleagues.

This new generation has a huge experience of social media, how it fits into everyday life, and best of all—they want to impress their new employer. Such skills shouldn’t be dismissed—in contrary, embracing their knowledge and digital fluency can give them a key role in educating reluctant members of staff in how to get the best out of social media and assist in harnessing such technologies for business.

The time for justification of Web 2.0 technologies is past, today—with the entry of digital natives into the workplace’—is the time for action. Businesses must capitalise on the opportunity to utilise existing in-house skills, their own digital natives, to drive their companies into this new age and avoid being left behind.

By John Cunningham, Director of Business Markets, ntl:Telewest Business