Digital Natives Aren't Necessarily the Right Managers

Digital Natives Aren't Necessarily the Right Managers


by Severino Meregalli, SDA Bocconi School of Management
Translated by Alex Foti

When we want to refer to the appliance that washes clothes, we do not use the term "electric washing machine" but we simply call it "washing machine". The fact that it is powered by electricity is implicit. This does not detract from the fact that large-scale generation and distribution of electricity did radically transform the economy and society. The widespread diffusion of electricity still remains an enabling factor for economic development, but 150 years after the onset of electrification, we have not yet responded to all the challenges and seized all the opportunities connected to this energy source.

Today, the term digital is profusely used in conjunction with new products or services, in order to highlight the use of the latest generation of ICT technologies. The abuse of this label and the excessive emphasis on the issue of digital disruption could precisely signal a superficial understanding of the impact that digital technology is having on corporations. There are many reasons for this irrational love for all things digital, but corporate managers must be clear-headed if they want to maximize the benefits coming from these technological opportunities. Terms such as Digital Marketing or Fintech can certainly serve to signal the advent of new ways of doing business, but it hard to envisage how marketing and finance could NOT be digital in 2019. Today, it is the normal duty of any manager to take into account all the digital inventions that can generate value for a company in a business environment characterized by continuous innovation. This way of approaching digital technology, less marked by sensationalism and more results-oriented, can be called "post-digital", which as Fraser Speirs argued in 2012, is that mental state in which "you take digital for granted; you’re not amazed by it".

A sensationalist vision of digital technology carries many risks; it can lead to overestimating the effects of these innovations and relying on commonplace views that are not very useful for transforming technological potential into value for companies. An example is the idea that the advent of so-called digital natives in executive positions will automatically lead to an increase in the ability of companies to adopt and exploit digital innovations. It would be like saying that those who are skillful drivers have the qualities required to be successful managers in the automotive industry. Yet this conviction has spread widely, leading to the consequent trivialization of the importance of the technological and managerial knowledge required to understand and exploit the so-called digital revolution. Conversely, if by "digital natives" we intend to indicate young managers with a deep knowledge of digital algorithms, data analysis, and their effects on businesses, then what you are describing is a professional profile that is sorely missed by Italian companies, but it’s not enough belonging to a given generation to be a good executive.

A good part of the hype that accompanies digital technology finds its roots in a kind of cultural provincialism that can easily become an obstacle for the attainment of a mature and aware diffusion of information technology. Our age is digital and companies are by necessity immersed in a world in constant technological evolution; let us quickly get over it and start doing training programs that help develop critical and informed thinking on how to do business in a context that has become irreversibly digital by nature.

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