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Bridging the digital divide: older workers know the business; younger workers know the technology. EAPs can help employers bring the two together to share technological expertise and critical business knowledge.

Much has been said and written in recent years about the so-called "digital divide," the gap between those who have access to information technology and the skills to use it effectively and those who don't. For better or worse, some people use the term as a proxy for "generational divide" and specifically to differentiate between the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1962) and the two waves that followed, Generation X (born 1963-1980) and the Millenials (born 1981-2000). The assumption is that Baby Boomers are uncomfortable with technology and thus avoid purchasing and using it, whereas Gen Xers and especially Millenials would be lost without it.

Research (both mine and that of others) has shown that the digital divide is not a matter of age or technological proficiency There are a lot of older workers who are extremely proficient with computers and plenty of younger workers who are uncomfortable using them. The digital divide is really a distinction between (1) the experience of coming into the workplace with a set of assumptions that technology will be networked, information will be available, communication will be instantaneous, content will be free, and interactions will be informal and direct versus (2) the experience of learning workplace practices first and using technology to implement pre-existing views of work and management.

A productive way to look at the digital divide is whether your knowledge of computers and technology preceded your entry into the workforce. If it did, then you're on one side of the divide. If you started working and learned the practices of your job and profession first and then began integrating technology into that knowledge base, you're on the other side of the divide.

One of the great causes of the digital divide is that technology is no longer just workplace-based. People in their twenties and thirties have been a target market for technology since they were adolescents, whereas prior to the mid-and late 1980s, technology was developed primarily for the workplace.

Even within the workplace, early technology was mostly transactional in nature. A company would have a mainframe computer, and the IT Department would use it to generate data, but the technology wasn't integrated into the business decision-making process. Eventually, more and more administrative personnel were given desktop computers to produce spreadsheets and prepare documents, but managers didn't get their fingers dirty with these sorts of processes.

For workers who came of age in the pre-technology era, the digital divide can be a long and difficult bridge to cross. Not only might they not feel innately comfortable with technology--they didn't grow up with it--they also feel it's for and about younger people.

Older people don't necessarily see the technology of social networking as relevant to their lives and the way they communicate with co-workers and friends and family. Consequently, even the simplest of information technologies can feel very foreign to highly educated professionals with long and distinguished careers in law or medicine or advertising.

USING 'TECHNOLOGY AMBASSADORS'

What many older workers need is for someone to show them that technology is .just another way to interact with others, but that's not a conversation they would ordinarily have. The challenge for organizations is to do more than just deploy technology--they need to take the extra step to reach out to workers to whom it's not intuitively obvious how to integrate the technology into their everyday work routines or how it would benefit them.

This will require a shift in the way employers think about technology. Employers typically consider technology an IT responsibility, so they view technological applications through the prism of the capabilities that are promised by the IT Department and the vendors. For example, IT management will say, "If we install these real-time communication technologies, it will help teams work together better and speed up document life-cycle management." Employers are always looking to do things better, faster, and cheaper, so they're inclined to approve any technology that promises these results.

One problem with this approach is that the end users of the technology are rarely consulted before purchasing or implementation decisions are made. Another problem is that deploying new technology is not the same as re-tooling an assembly line. New technology often requires workers to share their knowledge and relationships and work products in ways that might make them feel more vulnerable or open than they're accustomed to feeling. This has to be a process, a negotiation; it can't be a matter of assuming, "We'll build it and they will come."

When an organization deploys new technology, it's not going to work unless employees like it and use it. It can't be seen as a necessary evil; it has to be seen as a real benefit that will help people work better and faster. When the IT Department is in charge of technology deployments, user behavior generally isn't the first consideration.

So, who should lead technology deployments? The Human Resources Department should be involved in the conversations, and the end users should be as well. I also recommend that employers consider establishing a process whereby younger workers serve as "technology ambassadors" and meet with older colleagues to help them get a feel for how the technology works. The beauty of this approach is that it can lead to a productive dialogue between the generations, because older workers have knowledge to share as well.

The most likely candidates to become technology ambassadors are Millenials. Numerous studies have shown that Millenials have good relationships with parents and teachers, are relatively more respectful of authority than recent generations, and tend to see mentoring as helpful to their careers. Millenials also come into the workplace with a well-formed team ethic because of their lifelong exposure to collaborative technology as students and as consumers. Before they ever set foot in the workplace, they've been sharing e-mails and participating in virtual study groups.

On the other side of the divide are the older, more experienced workers who have the critical knowledge of how things work and the professional and institutional networks that support business processes. The question is, are older workers going to share their information openly when they perceive that it gives them a competitive advantage in the workplace? They have the knowledge, and their inclination will be to hold onto it.

Organizations will need to find ways to value that knowledge and compensate people appropriately for sharing it. It's not a technology issue or a cultural issue, it's a dollars and cents issue. It's a business re-think that needs to happen, and the sooner the better.

ENGAGING 'BOOMERANG BOOMERS'

In addition to facilitating the implementation of technology, an information transfer process can assist with the retention of institutional knowledge. Throughout most of the 20th century, older workers were trickling out of the workforce little by little, so knowledge retention wasn't an urgent issue. Over the next 10 years, however, 50 million Baby Boomers will reach retirement age, so knowledge management is not an option--it's a necessity. Forming intergenerational relationships to transfer institutional knowledge from older workers to younger ones can help mitigate the impact of these mass retirements.

As the Baby Boomers start to retire, there is going to be an increasing scramble for skilled and talented workers. The overall number of workers is diminishing as the workforce ages, so a lot of employers will be looking to recruit elite younger workers who have ready-made skills. Some employers, especially those that can't offer a stimulating environment, are going to miss out--younger workers, in study after study, say they aren't interested so much in a paycheck as they are in a challenging and interesting work experience.

I've talked to a lot of people in manufacturing and "old economy" industries who say they are having a hard time recruiting younger workers and who are looking instead to what I call the "Boomerang Boomers," the people who've already completed their careers and are now re-entering the workforce out of economic necessity or because they want to continue to be engaged. These workers may have had limited exposure to digital technology and are more likely to resist using it because they feel it's external to their jobs and lives.

How can employers help Boomerang Boomers overcome their reluctance to use technology? A non-profit organization in New York called Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) has conducted a lot of research to determine which training methods work best with older workers. OATS learned that many older workers don't feel that the training they receive, either on the .job or from community resources or from books like Windows for Dummies, prepares them properly for the workplace. They compare it to learning a foreign language one sentence at a time, but without understanding the underlying grammar.

OATS disassembled the training process and determined where the gaps lie. What they found was that they were dealing with people who are accustomed to a linear learning style, who value written documentation, and who want to lay a firm foundation underneath the basic concepts before they proceed. OATS addressed this by developing a curriculum for older adults that focuses on understanding and adopting a digital mindset as a prelude to the training.

There's a wonderful moment in the training when the older workers view a Website featuring digital animals that people have created. For a few minutes the workers sit and wonder what's going on, and then they realize that this is just a site where some guy is being creative and expressing himself, and suddenly they understand that the technology is just an enabler--that it allows people to express themselves, share their ideas, get recognized, and so on. Once these older adults understand that concept, it gets much easier to teach them advanced skills and get them to experiment and use the technology the same way younger people do.

MAKING SURE THE GEARS MESH

Ultimately, every person has his or her own way of figuring things out. Older people tend to think, "If I do this wrong, I'm going to break it." Younger people are more experimental, so they tend to learn faster. That's the bridge that companies have to cross--they have to solve that frustration problem and overcome that digital barrier. Older workers already know what they need to know about the business; what causes the bottleneck is that they don't feel comfortable in an office where they're circulating information through e-mail and scheduling meetings through Outlook.

What this means, at bottom, is that investing in technology without first developing a plan for getting technology-averse people interested in adopting it will result in pouring money down the drain. The plan needs to include a training approach that teaches workers not only how to use the technology but also why to use it and how to apply it to their particular jobs. The plan also needs to recognize that this kind of training calls for a professional. This isn't something to address by giving workers a CD-ROM or sending them to a Website. EAPs should encourage employers to invest in good training to make sure the gears mesh between the people and the technology.

If your employer clients aren't in a position to professionalize technology training, encourage them to consider the benefits of reciprocal mentoring. They can pair younger workers who have an innate feel for technology with older workers who can help teach them the business. As part of this exchange, the younger workers can document the business processes and put them on a blog or an RSS feed to publish out to the rest of the organization.

If your employer clients are smaller businesses, share these recommendations:

(1) Use your looser approach to technology as a recruiting advantage. Small businesses rarely have complex IT policies governing how their people work. This makes them much more fertile ground for adopting emergent social computing applications and collaboration and gives "digital natives" more opportunity to add value. Millennials looking to have immediate impact in the workforce will prioritize these kinds of opportunities, giving small businesses a competitive edge in the hunt for talent.

(2) Spread technological knowledge with cross-generational teams. Keep an eye on the tech tricks your younger employees are using and encourage them to share them in one-on-one conversations with older workers. This can also be a great way to teach younger workers the tricks of the trade by learning from experienced colleagues.

(3) Leverage community training resources to build competency with older and returning workers. Small businesses don't have the training resources of large corporations, but community-based organizations can help. Look for ones that specialize in digital literacy, not just computer training. The goal is to help older worker and those coming into the workforce from non-traditional information jobs become comfortable with communication and collaboration so they can express their talents fully.

Rob Salkowitz is a writer and consultant focusing on the social implications of technology. His book, Generation Blend: Managing Across the Digital Age Gap (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), offers strategies to harmonize the strengths of different generations in the information workplace.
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Title Annotation:Focus: EAPS AND THE ELECTRONIC SOCIETY
Author:Salkowitz, Rob
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Words:2166
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