Social Computing and Ageism 2.0

Yesterday during my presentation at Knowledge Management 2.0 / Content Management Arena @ CeBIT, I said something along the lines of "age does slightly matter in terms of adoption of enterprise 2.0 tools" which, thanks to a mix of fatigue, confusion and badly expressed ideas in a foreign language, was received as "50-something people cannot innovate". Ouch! Both Ulrich Kampffmeyer and Simon Wardley kindly told me this was bullshit. Of course it is, and of course it's not was I think, less meant to say. I apologize for the cock-up.

That age has any influence with respect to the capacity to innovate may be an interesting debate per se, but here the point I was trying to raise is about the generational cultural differences we can see between the analogs (people who've always used purely analogous communication tools their entire life), the digital natives (people who've only known and used purely digital communication tools) and the immigrants between them (people who've been born in an analogous communication era then had to switch to digital tools). This distinction has been brought up by Marc Prensky (author of "Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning"), and it's valid only relative to our current point in time, it's not an absolute question of age.

The confusion came up, I think, when I was trying to highlight another factor that combines with this generational shift: that middle-management (mostly analogous and immigrants) is a slower mover than youngsters and top management. I mentioned an age range of 50-55, which actually is more something like 45-55. Giving age figures is touchy, as people in that range are entitled to take it personally and feel discriminated. Heck, I know people my age who are just incapable of doing anything useful with a web browser! The idea here, and it's something I have really experienced in several companies, is that middle managers who have made their way in the hierarchy without the help of all those new shiny 2.0 tools, and who lust on their next upper move to the top of the pyramid, see no reason to use them. Even worse, they (sometimes rightly) see all the dangers and threats to their position that those tools can bring. The potential of short-circuiting management, cutting off the stratus that add no value in a network, is an inherent feature of any social computing tool (and a feature that is not often discussed).

Top management is aware of a third force coming into play at the same time: the massive retirement of the baby-boomers (analogs), and their replacement mostly by young recruits (digital natives). From my discussions with CEOs and top managers, I see them pretty aware of the danger of acculturation (i.e. seeing the young recruits quickly fold into the existing culture of the enterprise and maintaining the status quo rather than challenging it) and willing to take the opportunity to plant 2.0 tools and foster cultural changes before it's too late.

To summarize, here are the three elements I wanted to point out:

  • we live in a era where there are three generations with respect to social computing: the digital natives, the immigrants and the analogous
  • the retirement of the baby-boomers and their replacement with youngsters represents both an opportunity (changing the company culture towards a better use of social computing) and a threat (loosing a lot of knowledge and missing the cultural shift by an acculturation of the young recruits to the "old" company culture)
  • middle-management, who've succeeded without social computing and may be threaten by it, can be a strong resistance point against the adoption of social computing

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