Saturday, August 8, 2009

Technology and Generational Differences

Back in the 1980s when I was a twenty-something, my first job as a trainer was in a department store. I used to conduct orientations and Point-of-Sales Policies and Procedures classes for new sales associates. A good number of my class participants were older women who were hired on to work a part time schedule. They would be trained along side younger workers providing me my first lesson in generational differences. We would discuss sales transactions, I would review the steps required to complete them, then the class would practice them on the cash registers. In those days we were using electronic cash registers that required all of the information on the price tag to be keyed in individually: merchandise classification, sku#, price and markdown. When it came time to practice, the younger people in the class would jump right in and start poking around on all the buttons on the machine. Many of the the older workers would freeze overwhelmed by all the coded buttons and intimidated by the beeps. They were fearful of making mistakes that would cause the registers to be out of balance. I would reassure them that in the classroom, we were working with dummy data and that these registers were not connected to anything, so it was safe for them to practice even if they made mistakes. We had a large transaction set so the register classes were spread out over three days. By the third day I could get most of them over their fears, but there was always one or two who were terrified when they got to the selling floor and had to do all of this with actual money and merchandise. As a trainer, this was my first lesson in generational differences. I learned that when it came to technology, many older learners would require patience and reinforcement, and that I would need to break the process down into very small steps.

Flash forward twenty some-odd years. My wife and I just purchased a new cell phone plan and bought new phones for ourselves and our two teenage children. My new phone is very different then the one I had previously. It has a numeric key pad for making calls on the front, but then it flips open to provide a full keyboard for text messaging. When we brought the phones home, I distributed a box to each family member with their phone. I then sat down to read the quick tips booklet and user's guide that came with my phone. My two children immediately cast the boxes and booklets aside and began using their phones. My son started by importing his contact list from another device and my daughter immediately began texting her boyfriend. A few days later when my phone rang, I was still feeling a little uncertain about how to unlock the thing and answer a call. My daughter Emily saw me struggling with this and snapped, "Oh dad, all cellphones are the same. Push Send to talk and End to drop the call." At that moment I flashed back to the little old ladies in my POS classes at the department store. Was I becoming one of them? How did I go from young and confident to uncertain and (slightly) intimidated by a simple electronic device? Now I'm beginning to identify with that older worker who is on the other side of the great technology divide. But what to do about all the new technologies and web based tools that are rapidly being introduced and easily adopted by younger generations? How am I as a learning professional going to keep pace with all these innovations as my children and their peers enter the workforce? How will exposure to blogs, wikis, social networking, mobile devices and the like impact these kids' expectations on how they will work and learn at work? These are the things I'd like to explore in this blog. Stay tuned.

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