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Here comes the digital native to disrupt your business

When I was applying for university, my target college had no website. This was not because it was an inferior institution; it has produced no fewer than sixteen Nobel laureates. The point is, at that time no one had a website. So I had to rely on a small brochure with a handful of photographs and course descriptions to know what I was in for. In those days, you showed up and hoped for the best, with little opportunity to gain advance information or make informed comparisons.

When I started work, I had no computer. Again, not because my employer could not afford them, but simply because computers were shared by many in those days and sat in a corner. They were also difficult to use and of limited functionality. Towards the end of my working days in London, I was given a mobile phone. This was a large brick of a device that did just one thing: it made calls. Badly, and at great cost.

At this point my ‘generation Y’ readers may be wondering why I’m harking back to prehistoric times. Today’s column, however, is not aimed at them. It is attempting to say something to my age-mates, and the key point to them is this: we are all ‘digital immigrants,’ not ‘digital natives.’

These terms were coined by Marc Prensky, and highlight the fact that although the world is now wholeheartedly digital, it is divided into those who have migrated from an analogue world, and those who were born into it.

The distinction is important. There is a very rapidly growing cohort of the population that has known no other way: these folks have always experienced the Internet, smartphones and apps, social media and ’24-7′ connectivity. Key business decisions, however, are still being made by an older cohort – one that is still adapting itself to the digital-mobile age, and struggling to understand its import.

In Africa, we cannot afford to take our time. We have the world’s youngest population. What we have experienced thus far in digital uptake is only the crest of the wave that is welling up in the ocean. In the next five years, a huge number of youngsters will come of age. Importantly, they will do so at a time when the cost of connectivity and smart devices will have fallen to very affordable levels.

Here’s the thing about this bunch of youngsters: they will have known no other world other than the one in which people are always connected, with information at their fingertips, always ready to argue with a stranger, and relating to the world primarily through their phone or tablet.

If you are from the generations that preceded this one and are running a business, I would suggest looking very worried at this juncture is an appropriate response. This is what lies ahead once the huge wave of connected youngsters comes crashing onto your beach: an over-communicated, over-connected, over-argumentative world of distracted and disloyal folk. These people will be your key employees and key customers in the world to come, and you won’t know what hit you.

This generation won’t read the newspaper in the morning and watch the news in the evening – they never have. They won’t accept poor service with docility – they will run campaigns to discredit you. They will make price and quality comparisons at every turn. They won’t show up at your premises; if you’re not on their device, they won’t be with you at all.

This is not just the usual generational change; technology and demography have come together to create a perfect storm in Africa. Like it or not, it’s happening all around you. So if you’re a digital immigrant making key decisions for the future, know this: you’ll need to think like a native.

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