Sunday, January 25, 2009

Generations Clash Over Technology Use

I think one of the deepest divides and potential clashes between boomers and the millennials, in particular at the opposite ends of the spectrum, is/will be the use of technology - not only "Web 2.0", but even more basic tools. I've been overhearing a lot of informal hallway/elevator/shopping mall conversations recently where millennials are expressing their deep frustration at the "old folks" inability to use even basic tools like email.

Though personal computing history dates back to the late '70s / early '80s (depending on if your an Apple or IBM fan), as personal computers and networks replaced mainframes, or were a company's first experience with technology, not everyone embraced getting personal with their PC with the same degree of enthusiasm. For some people it was a necessary evil. For others it was a tool/task that was best avoided, or delegated.

Even today, over 25 years later, I personally know of people who refuse to touch a computer outside of work. They don't have a Blackberry / PDA, have no idea how to add phone numbers to their cell phone address book, and often ask someone else to do it for them. They've still got glue covering the time display of their VCR at home as a reminder of the tape that once covered the flashing 12:00 display. They ask someone else, often the dealer, to set the time display in their car.. Internet banking? They’ve only recently mastered the automated teller machine and still prefer to go to a real teller for even trivial banking transactions.

In the office, they have their administrative assistant print out their emails, and then write their responses for their assistant to re-key. They print documents they receive and comment on them with a pen as a matter of course not convenience. And they make no effort to use corporate information / document management applications, instead delegating the tasks to others.

Some people have a genuine phobia about using computers, and others have a genuine lack of skill. Understandable. But what I find astonishing is that some people speak of their lack of technology fluency/use as though it was perfectly acceptable, a point of pride.

I think that respect is an important element of good peer and manager/staff working relationships, and I think respect is equally important for all generations.

Millennials coming into the workforce will be far more critical of others’ lack of technology use/skills, and I suspect will not be particularly respectful of colleagues, direct managers or senior leaders if they are not competent with technology. In turn, the lack of respect will undermine working relationships and pose significant challenges in getting work done.

Arguably, time will solve the problem as more and more of the boomer generation retires. But until then, it could be a rough ride.