Although it occasionally smacks of John Perry Barlow’s heroically overblown Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a more recent post, We, the Web Kids by Piotr Czerski does neatly articulate the implicit collective Weltanschauung of the millennial generation of digital natives. It’s important because it brings into sharp relief some of the potential prejudices that digital immigrants of my generation can bring to the issue of business strategy if we’re not careful.
“We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not ‘surf’ and the internet to us is not a ‘place’ or ‘virtual space’. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it.”
When I joined Airtours, a vertically-integrated tour operating group, in 1997 the view that ‘the high street has had it’, meaning that bricks-and-mortar travel agents were done for, had already taken root. Fifteen years later they are definitely under siege, but remain an important sector. It’s hard to make a case that they aren’t in structural decline, but is their tenacity evidence of a long term future? Have they ‘survived’?
Reading Czerski it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, although they didn’t tank when we might have expected them to, the high street agents are harvesting a slowly diminishing population that may fall off a cliff at any moment. We digital immigrants assumed our parents would be the last generation to walk into a shop to buy a holiday. We were half wrong. Some of us still need to see a face when we make our biggest purchase of the year. We’ve been wired that way. But does a digital native have any use at all for a wet-ware travel agent? Does the idea of going to a shop to buy a holiday even make any sense to them?
“The ability to find information is to us something as basic, as the ability to find a railway station or a post office in an unknown city is to you.”
If there is hope for the high street agents it lies in the value that they can provide that current-generation algorithms struggle with. Empathising; diagnosing the real need and proposing sympathetic solutions. And even then they’ll be competing with trusted on-line social networks and an implicit distrust of single sources of knowledge.
“We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value”
But just organising travel? Why? Today there’s a viable and lucrative niche market in organising exotic overseas trips for the cash-rich-time-poor. But is this going to make sense to a digital native? Even a rich one? For me, there is a temptation to believe that there is a value in having an expert take care of your most important travel plans, and to give you some clever ideas for your wedding anniversary. Perhaps the rise of Travel Counsellors supports this view. But their clients are not really digital natives, who would presumably view this very idea as preposterous.
That’s just the demand side. On the supply side, businesses recruiting digital natives will face an uncomfortable cultural mismatch. Traditional businesses, driven by auditors and paranoia, have been backtracking into regressive and medieval IT lockdown policies. This is horrifying their younger employees and, reading Czerski, it is difficult to see how resource-based competitive advantage can accrue from that approach.
Of course there is segmentation to consider. Not all millenials will fit Czerski’s stereotype, just as not all pensioners want to go on cruises. And, who knows, maybe the next generation will be digital refuseniks…