Stop coddling the computer illiterate

What's with this technology-ignorance badge of honor that people seem to wear so proudly? I, frankly, have never understood it nor understand why it is tolerated.

I was listening to NPR on the way home yesterday when they aired a story regarding teenagers coming of age in this digital world, and how this is the first generation of children to have mastered current technology before their parents did. It went on to describe all the horrible things that kids can get exposed to without their parents being aware.

Now whose fault is this really? Are we to blame the manufacturers of the new technology for the parents' inability to figure it out? Of course not! Plain and simple, if parents don't understand a technology better than their children, it is their own fault - period. If we can characterize a generation of children who have grown up in a digital world without adult guidance, then let me also characterize these parents as the first generation of parents that seem to wear ignorance as a badge of pride.

When I was growing up, I can't ever recall an adult declaring proudly that he couldn't read or do math (they may have not been able to but they were not proud of it; they were even ashamed), yet I can't tell you the number of times I have heard today's adults say, "I don't know anything about those computers and don't want to know – just make it do what I need it to do." I'm sure you have heard similar comments.

What's with this technology-ignorance badge of honor that people seem to wear so proudly? I, frankly, have never understood it nor understand why it is tolerated.

Now what in the world does this have to do with government technology? Well, these same parents who can't learn enough about the Internet to keep young Billy or Suzy from frequenting porn sites come to work with you/for you everyday!

And guess what? They wear that same technology-ignorance badge proudly at work too! You deal with this everyday – from top management to the lowest person on the org chart. This phenomenon knows no boundaries! It's not a matter of education either, as Ph.D.s can demonstrate this trait as well as someone without a high school diploma. Why, why, why is this allowed?

The answer is simple. Senior management doesn't demand technology competence of all employees (in fact, they are often the guiltiest), and they also do not place a high priority on this competence; therefore, they are reluctant to finance training and continuing education.

Let's talk about technology competence. I do not expect every individual in the workplace to know how to program in Java, but I would like to have a basic expectation that they know how to maneuver quickly and competently in the OS that they spend all day working in (Windows). They should also be able to differentiate between the MS Office applications and know how to use each at more than a rudimentary level.

Please note that I said I would like to have a basic expectation because in reality I have the opposite expectation. I am usually surprised when someone demonstrates basic technology literacy. Sad but true.

So how is this going to change? Unless you have more tech savvy senior management (they do exist – I have seen a few) demand competence of their employees and begin to fund training, the fix to this problem will be through attrition. The younger generation will take their place in the workforce, demanding that their workplace keep up with them, as well as making their current co-workers look bad for not having learned anything. Only then will people stop wearing that technology-ignorance badge so proudly.

So what does this mean to you in the short run? It means that your users and decision -makers need technology issues explained in plain English. Mind you, I am not saying "dumbed down," but rather phrased in such a way that the basic concepts are easy to grasp.

More importantly, they need to understand how technology affects them as business users. Leave out the complicated technical details when making a business case and talk about what benefits the organization. Have the details in your back pocket to be able to demonstrate you have done your homework, but make sure your message is one that is easily understood.

It also means that we need to continue to fight for training money because until we get everyone to a certain level of competence, the technology tools we put in front of them will forever be underutilized. It also can mean that we stop giving them more than what they will use, if we are brave enough to do so.

What does this mean? Frankly, I am willing to debate that the majority (that does not mean all) of typical business users could get by with email, a text editor with spell check (Wordpad with spell check, in essence), and a basic spreadsheet program. In my opinion, the feature richness of the MS Office suite goes unused by the majority of users. In fact, my gut feeling is that 75 percent of the advanced features in all of the Office applications go unused.

Given this hypothesis, one can then say that we are paying an enormous amount for software that contains features that most will never use. So perhaps we give them something less feature-rich and less costly (StarOffice or Open Office anyone?) and give the power users the real Office tools? Heresy, you say! We must have STANDARDS, after all, to ease support. Everyone must use the same tools! If we had easier tools – we might not need so much support then would we? Hmmm.

In any case, if we are going to continue to provide MS Office as a standard, we should at least get people trained to do more with it and get the most out of our investment, right?

As for the children knowing more than their parents – well, what can I say? There are books and training available to anyone who might show an interest. Also, having a child tutor a parent is not only possible, but actually might give them something in common to talk about. But if parents are content to let 12:00 AM blink on their VCRs or DVD players, or a if manager is okay with someone still using a calculator with rolls of paper to do their budgeting, then they only have themselves to blame.

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