Addressing the Digital Divide WITHIN Your Organization

This post originally appeared on my blog, “Social Media Strategery.”

If it wasn’t for my brother and I, my mother would still have a VCR that blinks 12:00 because she couldn’t figure out to change the time on it and never saw any desire too. Despite fixing it every time I was there, she never saw a problem with it. About five years ago, I finally bought her a DVD player and upon opening the box, I was greeted not with a “thanks!” but a “why do I need this? Our VCR works fine.” Merry Christmas Mom!

Five years and hundreds of presentations later, I’ve realized that my mom, while frustratingly not interested in technology, wasn’t the anomaly – I was. I work at one of the largest technology consulting firms in the world and a vast majority of my clients work for the U.S. Federal Government, yet every day, I’m reminded of the fact that while I may think of them as Luddites, they think of me as a huge nerd. While using Twitter may seem almost passe to me and the other social media “evangelists” out there, it’s important to remember that the not only does the vast majority of America not use Twitter – the vast majority of your colleagues don’t either. And like my mom, they probably don’t care or see why they should.

Everyone talks about the digital divide that exists in America between those with access to information technology and those who don’t, but the digital divide that gets talked about far less is the one that exists right in your office. Look around you – there are many people in your office who:

  • Have no idea what a browser is
  • Print out their emails and schedule each day
  • Carry pounds of binders and notebooks with them every day
  • Think you know everything when, in reality, you just know how to use Google
  • Still use a flip phone
  • Ask you what a URL is

Realizing this fact (that I’m a nerd) and accepting that most people don’t share my passion for technology (because I’m a nerd) has helped me as I create presentations, write proposals, talk with my clients, and mentor my colleagues. You see, I used to get frustrated when I’d give presentations, and upon telling people to open their browsers, I’d hear, “what’s a browser?” Because, as my frustration would mount – “how can people still not have a basic understanding of the Internet???!!” – their frustration would escalate as well – “I can’t stand when people tell me I should be using some new tool when my way of doing things works just fine!” Instead of an opportunity to learn about technology that can help them, our mutual frustration led to an almost adversarial relationship. Not good. Now, I’m focused on empathizing rather than converting and explaining rather than criticizing. This means that people are focused on the information I have to give, not on defending their position. And, I’m able to actually listen to their concerns and frustrations without feeling the need to defend my position.

When you read this and go back to your office today, consider empathizing instead of criticizing.

When You Hear

Don’t Say This

Say This

“What’s a Browser?”


“The browser is your window into the Internet – there are many different browers, including Safari, Internet Explorer, Opera,
Firefox. Let’s see which one you have.”

“What’s a Tweeter?”

“Haven’t you watched ANY news in the last two years?”

“The site is called Twitter and it’s an Internet site where people can share 140 character messages, links, status updates,
and locations with other people”

“Why would I bother with sending you a text when I can just call you?”

“Because if you call me, I’m not going to answer”

“Texting is great way to communicate with someone in short bursts, often when talking on the phone is not feasible.”

“I don’t know how you have time to tell people what you ate or where you are at all hours of the day!”

“I wouldn’t be talking about time management when you’re the one who prints out every single one of your emails”

“I don’t. That’s why I only use Facebook (or Twitter) to share interesting links, talk with my family/friends, and/or
ask questions of my network.”

“When was Company X founded?”

Send them a link for Let Me Google That For You

“This is a great example of where we can use Google to find the answer really quickly – let me show you.”

Use these opportunities to teach more and more importantly, to learn more. Rather than writing these people off as lost causes, we should be doing our best to bridge this digital divide and understand that we too can learn from their experiences. Ask them why they still cling to their old practices to understand how you can better frame technology in terms that make sense to them, not to you. Use them as sounding boards for your next great social media or tech idea – after all, even if you have the greatest tool, it’s not going to mean anything if the nerds like you and me are the only ones using it.

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Christopher Whitaker


I have lots of colleges who are lost around the new technologies and lack intermediate computer skills – it’s frustrating, but it’s true.

Christopher Whitaker

I was pushing a wiki for our agency, and one of the managers whispers to her peer, “What’s a wiki?”

A stark reminder that while I may be up-to-date with my gadgets and gov 2.0ness – it doesn’t mean everyone else is.

Jeffrey Levy

Outstanding post, Steve! The general concept applies to any sales pitch: talk in the language your audience understands.

I regularly run into even webbies who wonder why they should bother with Facebook. And I honestly reply about what it can and can’t do. It’s just not for everyone.

BTW, I LOVE the blinking 12:00 graphic!

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

So been there! When I was teaching at the University of Louisville (KY) I would do training sessions on the new tools such as blogs and wikis. I ran into the same issues you did and also had to account for every sensationalistic news story about the Internet.

For example: Wikipedia. The professors would immediately dismiss all wikis because anyone can write anything they want on Wikipedia without any fact checking. I acknowledged that that was true for Wikipedia but our private university wikis were different because we required validated accounts to post on the wiki. The professor also had several tools to see who posted what and the professor could roll back objectionable or questionable content. Toward the middle of the session I could see attitudes changing into an enthusiasm to try the new tool.

Two points in selling new technologies:
1) Dispel the rumors about the misuse of the tools.
2) Talk in terms of immediate benefits for the user. “Sure you can print out all of your emails but would you like to cut down your reading load without missing the important emails? Well texting is a lot like email but you don’t get all the spam and it’s as immediate as a phone call.”

Steve Radick

@Christopher – I don’t mind at all when I get the “what’s a wiki?” question so long as they’re seriously interested in learning more about what it is. But I do get frustrated when I get disingenuous questions that show this person has no interest in learning more about the work that I do.

Steve Radick

@Jeffrey – I’m always a little surprised to see how often these social media “best practices” are just evolutionary tactics of things that we’ve always done…be it in sales, marketing, communications, or collaboration.

Steve Radick

@Bill – Do you know how often I had clients trot out the Terrorists use Twitter article as a reason why they’ll never use Twitter? This fear was based on ONE article – they had never actually used Twitter or read anything else about it, but that assumption became fact in their mind.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Another excellent post, Steve. We really get immersed in this stuff and talk to each other and forget that, in some ways, we’re still a fringe group! This post is instructive for culture change, too…if we just try to pull along colleagues to adoption, that will be less effective than being patient and sharing ideas in a way that helps people see value first from a an individual perspective, then allowing them to discover application for the organization as they take those first steps…and get excited about what you’ve just shared with them.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Steve – Wow! I haven’t heard that about terrorists using Twitter. I did have one professor who petitioned to have all of the university’s websites shut down because Target was sued for not providing 508-compliant websites. And UofL even had a two-day training program and certification for all campus webmasters in web accessibility so were in no danger of being sued. Good times! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Sonny Hashmi

I figure this is a good forum to share some of the digital divide shockers we have all seen within our organizations. Perhaps even gain feedback on how to address them in a responsible, cooperative and non-disparaging manner. I’ll start

1) Executive – I really really want that new iphone thing. can someone set up a training session for me?

2) Various and painful twitter bashing comments

3) What is this yammer things. I saw an email asking me to join. I thought it could be a virus so I deleted it.

4) I joined yammer but immediately instructed all my staff to NOT post anything on that thing. We dont want people to know what we are doing.

5) You know that excel template you created for me? Yeah. can that “system” generate a report that shows me a log of all the entries made into it?

6) You mean I can actually ATTACH a file to an email message? wow. I have always printed the files I wanted to share and then made copies for all my team members

7) I really want a macbook. What do you mean I can’t use Visio or project on it? This Fusion thing is too complicated. Why cant you just install windows on my macbook?

8) I couldnt login remotely from home to check on the mainframe job overnight. Well the laptop that was provided to me didnt have a charge. I couldnt plug it in because there is only one outlet in the room I was working in and my fan was plugged into that outlet

9) We need someone to be dispatched to our executive’s residence. His personal computer that he needs to use to access work documents cannot log on to the internet. What do you mean he needs an internet connection at home? What’s comcast?

10) And last but not least – Email? whats that? Oh you mean that Outlook thing on my computer? Yeah we dont use that in our division. (in 2009)

Hope you enjoyed

Steve Radick

@Bill – like I tell my clients when they bring that Twitter article up to me, in other breaking news, terrorists are also using cell phones to communicate with each other (*gasp!!*)! We shouldn’t be using those either!!! Come on – Twitter is a means to communicate with a large audience of people – millions of people are using it. It’s easy. It’s accessible. Of course terrorists are using it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be – quite the contrary, that’s more of a reason that we SHOULD be!

Steve Radick

@Sonny – I REALLY hope those weren’t actual quotes from people and that you were taking some creative liberties…please tell me that’s the case, please? ๐Ÿ™‚ Hilarious nonetheless!

Sonny Hashmi

@ Steve. I wish I could say those were fragments of my imagination, but each one of these is a real conversation/scenario I have experienced first hand.

Michele Costanza

This is a rather long response to your blog, and maybe it should be a blog instead of a response. When discussing the digital divide in the United States, it’s important to be clear on accepted terminology, such as defining the “have nots” and the “want nots.” In the United States today, the digital divide isn’t an issue of access to technology tools or to the Internet between “the haves” and “have nots.” Rather, the “have nots” are more like “want nots.”

From my own personal experience, I was more of a “want not” for years. I managed to get through graduate school up to my dissertation-writing process without owning a computer. Why? My reasoning was I had access at my apartment’s business center; my campus computer lab where I taught writing; and numerous computer labs at KU where I attended as a graduate student. As a graduate student, I didn’t want to spend the money on the software, which was available to me at the computer labs. I also didn’t want to spend the money on a printer, ink, paper, etc. and have to repair any of that equipment myself. Where I taught writing, the Educational Technology Center was staffed with such excellent people, I could go there for a couple of hours and learn how to build my own website and use course management tools like WebCT/Blackboard. I enrolled at a discount in 1-credit courses in Adobe, PPT, etc.

According to past statistics, the fact that I didn’t own my own computer or subscribe to the Internet in my own household, meant that I fell on the wrong side of the digital divide, which really wasn’t the case.

The dilemma with discussing the digital divide in the United States as if it’s a tragedy in the making, is that we need to be clear on whether individuals are “have nots” or “want nots,” and if they truly are “have nots” what adverse impact does that create in their lives? Today, the digital divide is more defined as who actually benefits from the advancements in technology. If individuals in the United States, even those defined as the “have nots” indirectly benefit from the technology, then there really isn’t an adverse impact on them.

I think it’s great that you are attempting to be patient in how you present information to people about technology. As a former special education teacher, I am very patient and understanding. I know how to present content in a variety of methods. However, please answer this, do you really think that you are the first person in the last twelve years to ever use the words “browser” or “Internet” to your audience? Is it possible that individuals who face no real threat of losing their jobs aren’t as motivated to learn new technology, especially if they see no direct benefit to how it saves them time or helps them do their jobs?

I don’t think it’s just a matter of presenting technology innovation and information assuming a low level of background knowledge. I also think it’s about showing them how using the technology will save them time and benefit them directly. In the long haul, the innovations will continue and eventually late adopters will adopt the innovation when they no longer have a choice. That is not being cruel. It is a natural consequence to the diffusion of the innovation.

Also, let’s try to use statistics along with anecdotal data to support a theory.

Thanks for reading!

Michele Costanza

Also, to address the superiority of a wiki, there is a difference between a wiki as a technology platform that supports peer-to-peer collaboration and knowledge creation from the field, which organizations can’t find in training manuals or doctrine. I get that.

However, I also get that Wikipedia isn’t meant to be used as a primary source when citing references for a formal paper. When doing a Google search on the topic, a link to the topic presented in Wikipedia often shows up first. I would encourage individuals who like to cite directly from Wikipedia to scroll down the page to the primary source references and read the primary sources. That’s the issue I took with how my students used Wikipedia as a primary source for citations. A decent writing teacher would explain to students the differences between the weight carried by peer-reviewed original references to support an argument, compared to a secondary source such as Wikipedia.

Again, let’s not insult the intelligence or technology adoption levels of people who don’t view Wikipedia as a primary source. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Michele – “Again, let’s not insult the intelligence or technology adoption levels of people who don’t view Wikipedia as a primary source. ;-)”

Never said it nor advocated it. My example was about using internal wikis for collaboration for classroom work. Blackboard has a built in wiki tool and a blog tool and that is what I trained the professors to use.

Of course no one should cite Wikipedia as a primary source. They shouldn’t cite the Encyclopedia Britannica as a primary source either. And I don’t encourage students to use Wikipedia’s reference lists either because that is highly suspect. I spent several class periods teaching the students how to use the online scholarly databases and those were the only sources I accepted.