Looking at today’s trends, it’s clear that both maintenance and facility management are steadily moving toward connected futures packed with new products, from real-time digital twins to predictive maintenance programs fueled by endless streams of sensor data and sophisticated AI platforms.

For even the smallest operations, the days of paper-based maintenance are ending. But it’s not only the products that are changing. So are the people. 

While future facilities are packed with new maintenance technology, they’re also populated with a new type of maintenance technician, the digital native. 

For maintenance and facility managers, then, understanding digital natives is as important as implementing the digital technology that defines them.  

What is a digital native? 

In some ways, the digital native generation is defined the same way as every other generation before it, from counterculture Hippies to cynical Gen-Xers; it’s all about when you were born and what was happening when you were in high school and then entering the workforce. 

For digital natives, though, most of the big cultural changes were technological. It’s not that there was a new type of music on the radio. Instead, it’s that everyone stopped listening to the radio and switched to MP3 players. People went from calling in to stations to request their favorite songs to amassing nearly unlimited ad-free (and often just plain free) collections.     

Digital natives are the first generation surrounded by and steeped in the digital age, including computers, videogames, digital music, cellphones, and the Internet. They’re the “instant” generation, with fast access to every conceivable pop culture reference, bit of scientific knowledge, and historical fact and figure. Perhaps most importantly, they also have—and expect—instant access to one another, thanks to email, texts, and social media. 

How is the rise of the digital native different than the classic “generation gap”? 

While the differences between someone born and raised in the 50s and someone from the 60s might include fashion preferences and taste in music, digital natives are disconnected from the generation before it at a much deeper level.  

Back in 2001, when Marc Prensky, CEO of a game-based learning software company, coined the term “digital native,” he was writing about how the school system was failing because, “Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” A big part of the definition of a digital native is that they understand and interact with the world in new ways. They think differently and work under a different set of experiences and expectations. 

What are the differences between a digital native, power user, tech fan, and digital immigrant? 

Power users have a lot of skills and expertise in specific software platforms. If you’ve mastered formulas, functions, charts, and pivot tables in Excel, you’re a power user. But if you’re still struggling to get it to automatically reformat dates, you’re not. Power users also tend to be tech fans, people who love new tech and are excited to use it.  

But you don’t have to be a digital native to be a power user or a tech fan. Remember, one of their defining characteristics is that digital natives grew up in the digital age. Prensky’s idea is that they “speak” digital natively, as a first language. Everyone else is what he called a “digital immigrant,” and no matter how much they use or love tech, for them it’s only ever a second language. He claims that digital immigrants have a sort of accent when they use tech, and the example he uses was when a digital immigrant calls someone to see if they’ve received an earlier email. Even when they embrace digital technology and reach some level of digital literacy, they lack perfect fluency. 

How can maintenance and facility managers best work with digital native maintenance technicians? 

Prensky created the concept of a digital native to explain why students weren’t learning in class. The problem, he felt, was that digital immigrants didn’t know how to speak to digital natives. They might know what to teach, but didn’t know to teach it.  

Prensky explains that for digital natives, “…school often feels pretty much as if we’ve brought in a population of heavily accented, unintelligible foreigners to lecture them. They often can’t understand what the immigrants are saying.” 

He then goes on to encourage educators to embrace, among other changes, gamification of content, where course designers break material down into much smaller pieces and mastery is achieved through graded tasks instead of structured, ordered learning objectives. 

Understanding digital natives for the average maintenance or facility manager

They’re not educators in the strictest sense, but they are in the classic. Just like a teacher, it’s their job to communicate and collect vast amounts of data, assign time-sensitive tasks, and review progress and production.  

Understand digital natives’ expectations 

As a maintenance manager, it’s important to understand what digital natives take for granted, what they expect to find around them, and how they expect it to work. 

According to Carla Prentice, an Implementation Specialist Eptura, digital natives expect data to be online, accessible, and searchable. They’re expecting a source of truth, like a database, instead of the more traditional source of wisdom, that single person who knows everything about an asset or piece of equipment. When they go looking for answers, they assume they can ask Google or the company maintenance software, not specifc people. 

“It’s moving away from having experts, and sort of having the crowd sourcing of information going into a data source,” she explains. 

Implement an EAM that plays to their strengths 

Old-school paper-based maintenance management programs don’t speak to digital natives. Paper makes everything linear, disconnected, and hard to find. Without an efficient way to search for the right data, a digital native could have a hard time understanding what they need to do and how to do it.  

A modern enterprise asset management (EAM) platform helps you take all the hard-won maintenance know-how from the team and get it up into a cloud-based database where it’s safe, secure, and searchable. Digital natives likely don’t default to trying to track down a senior tech who keeps all their knowledge locked up in their head. Instead, they expect to be able to get out their mobile maintenance app and look up the info they need, from assigned work orders to inspections checklists.  


The future of maintenance and facility management features many exciting new technologies, from digital twins to artificial intelligences that can combine large data sets into accurate predictions about what work the team needs to complete to avoid failures. But just as important as the technology are the future technicians.

Digital natives grew up surrounded by always-on instant access to data where everyone is online, and nothing is further than a quick Google search away. Unlike the gaps between previous generations, digital natives are not easily differentiated by different styles of music and politics.

They see and understand the world differently, making it difficult for them to thrive in a traditional setting. But maintenance and facility managers can learn to effectively work with this new generation by better understanding their expectations and setting up systems that play to their strengths, including implementing an EAM solution with a central source of truth that makes data safe, secure, and searchable from any mobile device. 

About the author

Jonathan Davis

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