July 6th 2021
By: Audrey-Ann Tully de Cotret

Digital Natives: A New Generation of Learners in Our Organizations

Today’s organizations are witnessing the emergence of a new generation with cognitive skills and ways of learning that are very different from their predecessors: the digital natives.

The idea that technology and millennials are disrupting structures, processes and even culture within organizations is not new. That being said, in today’s increasingly competitive and innovative (digital) business environment, it is particularly important to look at how, and more importantly, why these transformations are occurring. For those who want a short answer, here it is: the new generation of talent has radically changed. Today’s talent was born into a world that had already embraced the digital turn; an omnipresent digital environment where human development is marked by constant digital stimulation. As such, their development experiences have impacted the way these talents think, react and most importantly, how they learn in an organization.

For the long answer, it’s here!

First, the term “digital natives” is borrowed here from the fields of education and learning (Prensky, 2001;2012) and refers to the digital native students who were entering North American schools around the 2000s. In general, they are now commonly known as millennials. However, these same students who have disrupted the education systems in recent years have also taken the job market by storm. The result for organizations? They are faced with the largest generation of talent in Canada, that is, 27% of the total population (Heisz and Richards, 2019), who have developed differently from previous generations of talent and, as a result, have developed different cognitive abilities and learning methods than their predecessors.

Why do they think differently?

This question can be addressed in two ways. First, it is important to know that the human brain continuously reorganizes itself throughout our lives, from childhood to adulthood: this is the concept of neuroplasticity. In other words, it is a property that allows the brain to reorganize its structure and functions every time we learn and thereby allow humans to adapt to their environment through their learning experiences (Gagnon, 2019). As a result, brains that have different developmental experiences will necessarily develop differently. Consequently, the brains of digital natives organize themselves differently from the generation that preceded them, especially due to the digital stimulation to which they were (and still are) exposed while growing up (Prensky, 2001;2012).

On the other hand, we now also know that a person’s ways of thinking and reacting are also conditioned by their social experiences. In fact, the social environment and the culture in which individuals grow up influence their thought processes in an important way. Thus, while digital natives have grown up in the interactivity and instantaneity of the digital world, their ways of thinking, interpreting and understanding are also different: they are multiple, in the sense that they process information in a fast and parallel way rather than sequentially. Furthermore, because of their virtual social experiences, the digital natives who are settling in our organizations today need interactivity, that is, immediate responses to their actions. Not only did they evolve in a context of immediate interactions, multitasking, fast and random access where activity, connection and reactions are instantaneous, but they have also become accustomed to this evolving environment and have become attached to these fast learning methods.

What are the impacts of these experiences on their potential?

Obviously, in a global economic context where situational analysis, adaptation, innovation and interactivity are the watchwords, these new ways of reacting and interpreting are well timed: digital natives are not only highly creative, but also independent, motivated and highly reactive to the environment (they always have been!). In fact, the thinking skills stimulated by repeated exposure to virtual activities and all forms of digital media to which they have been exposed include:

  • Representational thinking, i.e., understanding that the same situation can be represented in different ways by different individuals (or different platforms);
  • Multidimensional visuospatial skills, which is the ability to visually analyze, understand, and interpret objects in our environment in a coherent way;
  • Mind (or cognitive) mapping, which is our ability to organize and visually represent, often in a diagram, our thought processes;
  • Inductive reasoning, i.e., the ability to make observations, formulate hypotheses and understand inductively the norms or behaviours observed;
  • Increased attention span and the ability to react more quickly to expected and unexpected stimuli.

Therefore, it is obvious that the development of this new generation has had (and continues to have) several implications on their skills and the way they develop them. Finally, it is the ability to process information in a parallel and instantaneous way, even simultaneously, that shows the new cognitive abilities of this new generation that are the digital natives. But beware, there is also a catch: in order to support their learning and development in organizations, we must make sure, in return, that we stimulate them effectively.

So how do we support and stimulate their development?

Let’s go back to the basics: technology is at the root of everything these individuals do. It’s not surprising that one of the forms of learning and development that can meet the changing needs and learning requirements of digital natives is the digital world: that’s why virtual learning, in education as well as in organizations, has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years. Not only does digital interaction remind them of the digital entertainment context to which they have become attached, but it also enables their engagement, which optimizes the quality as well as the quantity of learning.

Employees want continuous learning and opportunities that fit their individual needs and schedules. Digital learning solutions such as game-based learning and informal methods such as exchange community, video and article sharing, as well as peer coaching are all accelerators and perfectly meet the expectations of millennials

Charpentier, 2017 [Traduction libre]

Thus, with the rise of digital natives within organizations, companies must rethink their approach towards talent development. They need new learning mechanisms that can adapt to the needs of a changing and independent generation of talent, while ensuring that individual interests are closely aligned with organizational goals. Not only do digital natives need interaction and flexibility, they also want to achieve great things. Therefore, their ambition needs to be nurtured strategically and dynamically, ideally in line with the organization’s goals.

In order to do this, we can stimulate and motivate the learning and development of individuals through their interests and passions: our new talent is incredibly passionate and is constantly looking for opportunities to grow. They all have different interests as well as aspirations, and are waiting for us to discover them and provide them with the right ways to pursue them. As an organization, we will need to align our organizational goals with the passions and interests of our talent: I firmly believe that learning comes from passion, and as long as you are passionate, you will continue to learn.

Things to remember? Speed, interactivity, flexibility.

Audrey-Ann Tully de Cotret, M.SC., PHD (CDT)

Associate Head of Practice, Academy


Caine, R. N. & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Charpentier, J. (2017). Cinq tendances fortes en développement organisationnel. Récupéré le 28 juin 2021 de : https://ordrecrha.org/ressources/developpement-organisationnel/2017/03/cinq-tendances-fortes-en-developpement-organisationnel

Gagnon, E. (2019). La neuroplasticité au service de l’apprentissage. Récupéré le 28 juin 2021 de : https://aqep.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/La-neuroplasticite-au-service-de-lapprentissage.pdf

Heisz, A. & Richards, E. (2019). Bien-être économique des générations de jeunes Canadiens : les milléniaux sont-ils en meilleure ou en moins bonne situation que les autres? Récupéré le 28 juin 2021 de : https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-626-x/11-626-x2019006-fra.htm

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.

Prensky, M. (2001). Do They Really Think Differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-9.

Wentworth, D. (2014). 5 Trends for the Future of Learning and Development. Récupéré le 28 juin 2021 de: https://trainingmag.com/5-trends-for-the-future-of-learning-and-development/