There has been a buzz in the nonprofit community about generational change, and culture clashes between older managers and younger staff are happening. Leaders are trying to get a handle on new ways of working and are a bit put-off by the high expectations of up-and-coming nonprofit staff. Just as the rate of change has increased exponentially lately, the generation gap here is more significant than in past generations, requiring us to be flexible and adaptive.
First, let me describe a little of what I am seeing. Some of the friction happening now is sparked by bafflement by elders about how young people multi-task and incorporate multiple technologies into their lives. They see emerging leaders working while listening to their ipods, texting friends, and checking their My Space or Facebook pages constantly (My Space users visit their page on average 30 times per day). These staff members are digital natives, and have integrated these technologies fully into their lives. In contrast, older digital immigrants find utilizing these tools more awkward and distracting, and cannot comprehend that the constant distractions these things would pose for them do not undermine staff members’ productivity.
It’s important for digital immigrants to adopt a posture of curiosity about the use of these new technologies. Rather than being dismissive, inquire about how coworkers are finding them beneficial.
Most old schoolers (digital immigrants) in the nonprofit sector understand the adage “It’s all about relationships.” However, we have a narrow view of relationships: they are primarily personal, one-on-one connections that are supported by face-to-face contact. Telephone conversations and mail are supplemental supports to maintain relationships. In contrast, digital natives may be more comfortable forming and strengthening relationships via Web 2.0 (a general term for online applications that promote connectivity).
At our conference session, a woman spoke up, lamenting the displacement and devaluation of face-to-face communication in favor of impersonal, technology mediated communication. I suggested that she might approach the issue differently, by showing curiosity about how people achieve the feeling of personal communication via online social networking—because clearly people are getting something out of Facebook that does feel personal and intimate.
Probably the best single strategy for bridging this digital divide is intergenerational exchange. I have already learned a great deal about digital natives from my seven-year-old daughter. At Christmas, she gave me a funny look when I suggested reading the instruction manual to find out how to give her new virtual “Nintendog” a bath. Before I could get the manual open, she had figured out how to do it intuitively. Indigo or crystal child? Maybe. A fascinating window into how digital natives think differently? Definitely!