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We’re All Biased — Learn from It

Last week I posted an article about whether younger “digital natives” or older “digital immigrants” are better at IT. In responses I saw on Reddit or that I received directly, I noticed a pattern:

1. A lot of people were disappointed (to put it mildly) that I didn’t draw a conclusion in favor of one group or the other. They didn’t like the fact that I saw the issue as shades of gray rather than black and white.

2. Some readers thought that the article was biased toward one group or the other. Interestingly, the younger readers thought that the article was biased toward the digital natives. And the older readers thought that the article was biased toward the digital immigrants.

One of the readers in particular thought that I had sold out to my bosses, saying

“Don’t bother reading. It’s basically ‘I can’t pick between my peers and the fat cats that give me my paycheck.'”

In fact I run my own business, so I’ve got no bosses to answer to. And I’m flattered that this reader seemed to think that I’m a digital native, although in fact I’m a digital immigrant (an early one — I was an immigrant on the digital equivalent of the Mayflower).

Quite honestly, when I first had the idea for the article, my gut feel said that older digital immigrants are better at IT. We’ve got more experience under our belts, we understand the challenges of trying to change a business process that’s been used so much that it’s practically carved in stone, and we understand the complexities of large-scale fault-tolerant systems. But I tried to look at the issue from the perspective of the things that the older generation is lacking, and that’s when I started seeing all of the advantages that digital natives bring to the table.

As I started listing the advantages that digital natives offer, I began to realize that there are distinct advantages to a fresh viewpoint, and that maybe this new way to look at things will produce better systems and better business processes. That’s when I decided to change the conclusion of my article to point to a balance between the two points of view, and I ultimately ended the article on a positive note (so I thought) by optimistically pointing to new solutions coming from the younger generation.

But going back to the two patterns I observed in responses to the article, let me make a few observations:

1. Not Drawing a Conclusion
I’m concerned that the world is viewing everything as too black and white.  To some degree I think this is a result of the current “sound bite” mentality in which things are always summed up in just a few words. When we’re overwhelmed with information it’s easier for us to reduce all of the detail to a high-level summary. But I think we do this too much, and as a result we lose track of the subtlety that the world offers. It’s like the pictures from the early digital cameras — the ones that only had a few pixels and very little ability to distinguish one color from another. The photos from those cameras were a representation of reality, but it was an oversimplified reality, like looking at the world through half-closed eyes. Oversimplification of information — boiling it down to sound bites — is an insult to natural human intelligence. And it discards so much valuable data that it often gives us incorrect results.

2. A Biased Perception of Bias
Everyone is biased in one way or another. We each see the world through the lens of our environment and our upbringing. We’re taught about the world in a biased way by our biased parents and teachers. We don’t see the bias, of course, since the bias is taught as the “truth.” We gradually see the word “bias” as meaning “the way that other people see things.” That’s not honest, but it’s natural. We have to use something as a reference point by which other points of view are measured, and our natural bias becomes that reference point.

So it’s not surprising that to a young digital native it’s more important that a software application be mobile, interactive and intuitive than it is for the application to be fault-tolerant, scalable and consistent with good business processes. And so in their eyes the skills to create mobile, interactive and intuitive applications must be more important to IT than the more mundane skills held by older IT veterans.

And it’s also not surprising that to an older digital immigrant a different set of skills is more valued. Again, the natural bias comes into play — both bias in upbringing and the bias that has developed from years of making mistakes, learning, and then doing things better.

To the younger digital natives who read this article: Please recognize that there’s a lot more to IT than mobility and sexy user interfaces. Don’t so readily discount the experience of older IT workers. They may not have your intuitive grasp of computer technology, and they may not relate to video games the way you do, but the digital immigrants have attained a lot of practical business systems experience that will take you years to understand. See their value, and learn from them.

To the older digital immigrants who read this article: Please try to remember your own early days using computers. Remember the excitement you once felt when you got a new technology to work for the first time (however basic that technology might look today). Remember the thrill of putting a system in place that actually improved the lives of business users. Recognize that you were once headstrong and abrupt, and that you learned from your experience, just as these younger people will learn. Where you see mistakes being made, try to teach. But recognize the difference between a mistake and a different approach. Not all differences are mistakes.

To both generations: Be more open-minded, and try to understand the reason (and inherent bias) behind an unusual behavior. We’re in the middle of a knowledge transfer between digital immigrants and digital natives. And that knowledge transfer is bi-directional, so each group needs to learn from the other.  Neither group is “right” and neither group is “wrong” — we’re both biased, and we can each learn by seeing a point of view that’s different from our own.

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