It was a little more than 10 years ago that a national conversation started about “the digital divide,” the fact that not everyone had the same access to digital technology. The infrastructure simply wasn’t there. Regions of the country were woefully underserved, and socioeconomic status dictated how easily you could connect with the world online. With time, that gap has narrowed. Advances in technology have made it possible for nearly everyone to have reliable access to the web. The playing field may not be entirely level, but it’s a lot smoother than it used to be.
Yet the digital divide hasn’t gone away; it’s changed. We’re divided, not by technology, but by understanding. There is a fundamental disconnect in our culture where technology is involved. It’s not a gap in access; we have a breach in our understanding about the role digital technology has in our culture and in our businesses.
The Internal Divide
On one side of the new digital divide, we have leaders and executives who developed their businesses before the advent of social media and online marketing. They had to learn about and adopt new technologies. They had to spend time and resources figuring out things like how Facebook, text messages, and Twitter fit into existing corporate structures and protocols. Also on this side of the divide are new business owners who are not accustomed to early adoption. These are not the people who have grown up with digital technology, social media, and online marketing as part of their reality.
On the other side of the digital divide are the individuals who have digital technology integrated in their everyday lives. This segment is often referred to as “digital natives.” These are folks for whom technology is inherently positive. They need no transition period to adopt new technology: it is ubiquitous and unremarkable.
The experiential difference between the groups is critical. On one side, we have older entrepreneurs struggling to integrate technology; on the other side, we have a generation that needs no integration, a community that doesn’t see why this conversation is even necessary. Bring that disconnect into your corporate culture and something as simple as letting your team know that you’ll be fifteen minutes late to a meeting due to a mass transit delay becomes a legalistic minefield: is notifying via text message appropriate, or does this situation require a time-consuming phone call? There are two immediately obvious answers to that question—and your answer will reveal which side of the digital divide you’re on.
Bridging the Gap with Your Team
Bringing your entire team onto the same side of the digital divide yields many benefits, including enhanced organizational efficiency, better communication, and improved corporate culture. Start the process with employee education and smart policies. Then, create an ongoing process of implementation and evaluation. Open the discussion
Have your team discuss, regularly and in depth, changes in technology and social media. This can be done as part of regular staff meetings or trainings. It’s essential that everyone in your organization operates on the same basis of understanding. While some team members may be early adopters or super users, you can expect all employees to have or gain a certain level of understanding. Providing ongoing education can bring those members of your team who aren’t familiar with technology up to speed. The members of your staff who are comfortable with technology still need education and clarification surrounding effective and appropriate use of technology in the workplace.
Foster an open atmosphere where discussion and questions are welcome. Designate a person (or team) to handle questions and concerns that come up between staff meetings or trainings: you don’t want these inquiries to default to your IT person or department.
Integrate Technology in HR Policies
Now, more than ever, businesses are integrating social media and technology components into their HR policies and procedures. This is an ideal point to encourage the appropriate use of technology, and educate new staff about collective expectations and individual responsibilities.
Be the Change You Want to See in Your Organization
Lead your team across the digital divide. Employees look to their leadership for examples of how they are to conduct themselves in the workplace. If you want your employees to communicate with you via text message, you need to send text messages yourself. Walk the walk. Tweet the tweets. Model the behavior you expect (and want) to see.
The External Divide
The divide goes deeper than a gap in understanding between employees and employer or manager. Entrepreneurs and smaller organizations are struggling to use technology effectively to connect with their customers, build brand equity, and compete more successfully against companies that have harnessed the expertise found only on the digital-native side of the divide.
It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what market you serve: many of your customers are on the cutting edge of the digital divide. Here, the view of relationships and online connections is inherently expansive. Customers are socialized to expect easy, immediate access to the companies and brands they do business with. This is not a population that tolerates frustration well: if they can’t connect with your organization, they’ll find another company that’s more receptive to their overtures.
Jennifer Shaheen is the founder of The Technology Therapy Group, which helps business owners harness today’s technology to effectively grow their business in the digital marketplace. In 2011 Jennifer was voted one of the Top 100 Small Business Influencers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.