Generational Experiences Of Online Collaboration

Over the summer, I went to New York for my mom’s 80th birthday. That means she was born back in 1929.

For her birthday, my youngest brother (another technology aficionado) gave

Over the summer, I went to New York for my mom’s 80th birthday. That means she was born back in 1929.

For her birthday, my youngest brother (another technology aficionado) gave her a Sony electronic picture frame. It was the hit of the party as my brother and nephew had loaded hundreds of pictures from former family reunions which not only rotated through the e-Frame, but could even be controlled by a remote. When Mom was born, I am not sure even color photos were available, and Polaroids were at least 35 years off. My mom has lived through a lot of technology evolution, and it seems to be going at an ever faster pace.

She was an artist for an ad agency in her early years after leaving college and before meeting my father. I have dubbed this generation of seniors “digital exiles” in that many of them have been exiled from connecting with the technology by time, attitude and/or rigidity of thinking (my Mom still refuses to take her mobile phone with her in the car, or if she does she only turns it on in an emergency).

This generation (and this is a generalization) is “unconsciously incompetent.” That is, they often do not know what they don’t know. I talked to her about Twitter and tweeting, and she looked at me blankly and said, “What’s that?” I told her that was one of the reasons Obama got elected (something she can relate to). When I told her it was a way to give quick updates to her social network, she said (predictably), “Why would I want to do that.”

In my latest book, “42 Rules for Successful Collaboration,” I talk about the “Mom Test.” (Rather, I should say “our book” since there were 30 contributors form several of my different social networks) who contributed. I talk about how collaborative tools should be easy enough for Mom (who is pretty smart and has at least one graduate degree), who did not grow up with computer technology to use easily and intuitively.

Collaboration tools like Glance do pass the test. Even my mom, who uses a Mac (hesitantly), could deal with Glance. But a tool with a broader base of technology like WebEx or Skype did not pass, and my mom actually needed a bit of tutoring to make these programs work. My idea is that if collaboration technology is difficult enough to impede a conversation, it is not good collaboration technology. Simpler is better in collaboration; our research shows that the most popular collaboration feature is “ease of use.”

So if Mom is a digital exile, what does that make me (a Baby Boomer)? I believe I am a “digital immigrant” — someone who did not start with computers but has learned to be proficient. So I do know what I don’t know, making me “consciously incompetent.”

The generation that follows me in time (Gen X), I call “digital workers,” as they have had computer technology available much of their lives, so they seem to be extremely facile with technology and much more in line with the immediacy of the Internet and instant communications. A 30-year-old told me “e-mail is for old people” — meaning me. Gen X seems to much prefer IM/Chat/SMS, as it is much faster and more immediate. These technologies can also add location information as well as presence and status (i.e. on-off hook, typing at your keyboard, in a meeting, or already in an IM conversation with another). Because these “digital workers” are familiar with the technology, they are considered to be “consciously competent.” 

That makes Gen Y, or the Twitter Generation, “digital natives,” as they have dealt with these computer technologies all of their lives. Not only do they abjure e-mail, but they are used to working as a group, team or network. Their natural form of interaction is “many to many,” and decisions often are not done by individuals but are thrown open to a group. This kind of decision making and “transparency” would be abhorred by digital exiles and digital immigrants, who prefer to interact 1-to-1 using the telephone or e-mail and believe conflict should be private rather than in public forums.

But back to Mom. Here is a women who has seen a revolution in transportation (the U.S. Highway system), hybrid cars (which she now drives), several computer or information revolutions, and even stem cells, genetic therapies, Bucky balls and nano technologies. By contrast, I have only had to live through about half as many technology revolutions, and — as an industry analyst following collaboration technologies — I am somewhat immune to these changes since I am an early adopter and have enough time to adapt to many of these technologies, and enough vendors to teach me about them, before they get popular.

Attitude and ignorance often are the only differences (besides age) that effect how people use, trust and collaborate over the Internet. As some of Don Tapscott’s studies show, boomers can act like Gen Y on line and often do — so it is really more about your attitude and willingness to learn and overcome generational biases that determines your effectiveness in online collaboration.

—David Coleman — author of this article — is the founder and managing director of Collaborative Strategies, a San Francisco-based analyst and advisory services firm focused on electronic collaboration and social networks. He has been studying this market for 20 years and has written four books. He recently did research on how social networks are used in the enterprise. He is a frequent speaker, author of the Collaboration Blog ( and can be found on Twitter at dcoleman100. More traditional methods of communication are telephone (415-282-9197) and e-mail (

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