Workplace Facebook bans not the answer for digital natives, expert warns

29 May 2011

Employers who block workplace access to Facebook and other digital communications are “cutting off the air supply” to a new wave of young workers who are wired differently to their elders and will need careful management in the future, an information systems expert is warning.

Professor Michael Myers, head of The University of Auckland Business School’s Department of Information Systems and Operations Management, says employer reaction to the upcoming wave of young “digital native” employees is to try and “control” them by blocking access to communication tools during work.

“The difficulty is that ‘digital natives’ – those generally aged mid-20s and below who have been born into a world where the use of information and communications technology is pervasive and ubiquitous – see this control as essentially cutting off their air supply,” Professor Myers says.

“It is vitally important that companies figure out how to manage this new generation of workers, and cater for a wave of employees which our new research project is hoping to confirm are simply wired differently to older generations.”

Professor Myers – head of the international research project looking at those born into the digital age – says “digital natives” are distinctly different to previous generations, and exist in a world where digital technology is interwoven into the very fabric of everyday life.

“These young workers continually carry mobile phones, laptop computers and personal digital assistants everywhere they go. Some experts have suggested they are an evolution of organisational employees who are distinctly different to previous generations,” he says.

“They also represent a fundamental shift in the paradigm for future planners, and simply banning communication tools like Facebook in the workplace is just not the answer to managing them.

“We urgently need to make sure we understand how they think.”

Professor Myers says more information is needed on how “digital natives” are using technology in their professional and personal lives at the office and home, how new forms of technology can be designed and implemented for them, and what impacts and governance issues will arise in the future.

The study, involving a team of international experts, will look at the three categories of digital users – “digital natives”; “digital immigrants” aged between mid-20s to 40s who are not born into the digital world but have learned to use information systems at some stage in their adult life; and “digital dinosaurs” aged over 40 who struggle to get their heads around Twitter or Bebo.

“Until now, most research into information systems has focused on ‘digital immigrants,” Professor Myers says. “In that research there is an underlying assumption that ‘digital immigrants’ resist technology, or at least have some difficulty in accepting it.

“It is clear that ‘digital natives’ are definitely keener to try out new technologies and ways of doing things than ‘digital immigrants’ or ‘digital dinosaurs’.”

Professor Myers says business needs to understand how to integrate diverse technological, social and managerial issues arising from the new type of environment when designing, building and managing new technologies.

“Whilst the range and reach of activities for ‘digital natives’ is tremendously increased through the use of information systems, it also poses many problems, issues and challenges,” he says. They range from security problems to work/life balance issues and governance, to potential changes in the health of workers.

The study researchers – comprising the Business School’s Associate Professor David Sundaram, Professor Kalle Lyytinen of Weatherfield School of Management in the United States, Professor Brent Gallupe of Queens School of Business in Canada, Associate Professor Youngjin Yoo from the Fox School of Business and Management in the United States, and Professor Myers – will include field experiments, case studies, simulation and laboratory experiments.

The group hopes to report its findings next year.