In many ways, the generation gap has never been wider. Anyone trying to sell to, hire or otherwise engage with Gen Y, also known as the Millennials, will attest to it. While every generation deals with generation gaps, the evolution of the digital age has created a "digital native generation," said Michelle Manafy, director of content for FreePint, Ltd. Manafy said this generation, which has grown up immersed in digital technologies such as mobile phones, gaming and social networks, have become our newest source of employees and consumers and it's time business owners, bosses and society, in general, learned to how to think like one.

"Those in older generations must learn to navigate a radically altered landscape in order to succeed in business going forward," Manafy said.

Here are a few of the ways in which the digital natives differ from the rest of your customers and employees and tips on how you can put this understanding to work.

They live publicly online.Tip:


– Without a doubt, the notion of privacy didn't change overnight with the advent of the Internet. For better or worse (or for lack of a better word), we've seen an evolution of privacy. It was once the norm to keep one's dirty laundry tucked away out of site. This gave way to a generation that tended to share from the relative privacy of a therapist's couch. More recently, we have witnessed the era of trash-talking talk shows and reality TV . However, with the digital native, businesses must address the expectations of a generation raised in social networking environments, in which they routinely share every detail of their activities and opinions with a potentially limitless group of friends.

Often, businesses are hamstrung by outdated notions of privacy. They fail to recognize and capitalize on the digital native's openness. We need to understand the native's natural inclination to live publicly to guide these activities so that they are consistent with our business objectives. We can also build business models that leverage on this openness, both in the way we structure our employee activities as well as customer interactions.

They share knowledge.Tip:


– Once we recognize that the natives are living their lives out loud, we can begin to understand how this behavior shapes all aspects of their lives. Despite a good deal of hyperbole regarding social media and marketing via Twitter and social networks, as many as 50 to 75 percent of organizations limit or ban the use of social media while on the job. What this demonstrates is not simply a fear of exposure through inappropriate use of social technologies, it shows a distinct lack of understanding of how to effectively manage and channel the knowledge-sharing inclination of this generation.

Beyond crafting guidelines to regulate the appropriate use of social networks on the job, proactive use of socially mediated, open, collaborative ways of working can help companies capture otherwise transient knowledge assets. The old adage was that knowledge is power; for the digital native, knowledge shared is power.

They believe transparency yields trust.Tip:


– Because digital natives live publicly and value knowledge-sharing, organizations that demonstrate a similar level of openness will be the ones that attract and retain them as employees and customers. Digital natives make new friends, followers, and fans every day. However, it is important to keep in mind that it takes a lot of work to maintain the kind of genuine relationship required with the digital native. If digital natives dislike your brand, they will make it publicly known. Luckily, the reverse is also true. Today's ultra-connected consumer, raised to share and monitor sentiment, may seem like a fickle friend, but that's only if organizations don't stay involved by listening, responding, owning up and doing the work it takes to maintain a genuine long-term relationship.

When it comes to attracting and retaining this generation as employees, it is essential to recognize that today's best employees are also monitoring opportunities and discussing employers online. For recruiting, this can provide insights into locating the best, brightest, and most social media savvy employees.  And for employee retention, employers can leverage these same tools and tendencies to make sure that they are competitive in the market and respond to concerns in order to attract and retain the best and brightest.

They are timely, not time-managedTip:


– While most people are painfully aware that the line between "at work" and "off duty" is increasingly blurred, for the native, this concept will be taken to a whole new level. The digital native will move beyond what previous generations called a work-life balance to a new sort of work-life integration.

For the digital native, work and social activities are ever-present; they travel with the native anywhere and anytime. Digital natives may log more hours at their computers during the course of a day than those in previous generations, but they switch back and forth between work and leisure in short bursts. Though this may strike some managers as inappropriate, it helps to realize that while an older worker might head to the break room or a co-worker's desk to clear their head, natives are more likely to "info-snack" or catch up on a quick burst of Facebook updates.

Moving forward, companies that emphasize collaboration, learning and socialization will see key benefits in comparison to companies that focus solely on productivity. The native doesn’t need to play all day to be happy. However, there’s no reason that work inside an organization can’t be constructively influenced by the expectations of our younger work force.

They believe in interactions, not transactions.Tip:

Credit: Saniphoto |

– Between social networking and social media, one might begin to wonder how any business ever gets done. Suffice it to say, it does and it will continue to do so. However, organizations that develop good social skills will have a competitive advantage over those that remain socially inept. One quality of this business that will be essential for business success going forward is recognizing that this generation is not interested in traditional transactive business models—which are based upon exchanges of money for goods and services. This is a generation that is interested in interactions.

Unlike a transaction-based system, an interactive one is based upon social currency. The fact is that all aspects of business will need to embrace interaction, from marketing and customer relationship management to product and content creation. This generation doesn’t just want to do business with companies it views as friends; it wants to do business with itself and expects to see its ideals and objectives reflected in the companies it chooses to do business with.

While there are many digital immigrants who are wholeheartedly adopting digital tools, it is not simply emerging technologies that must be mastered. A lifelong immersion has affected the mindset, behavior and expectations of the digital native generation. To succeed in business with them, we must understand it and build models based on this new native culture.

Michelle Manafy is the co-author of "Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step With the Generation That’s Transforming the Way Business Is Done" (Information Today, 2011).