Let's help the 'Internet-impaired'

Dec. 21, 2004
They don't know what they're missing

If you are reading this column, then you obviously know how to find a Web site and use hot links to access a whole new world of information. Millions of people do this every day, but millions more don't have a clue either how to do it or why they should. I call the latter group the "Internet-impaired"--or "IIs", for short. The ranks of IIs may include your spouse, your parents, your boss, or possibly people in influential positions at your place of work. Recently, a colleague and I discussed a particular II. This otherwise-successful vice president-general manager of a large manufacturing plant is in his late 40s and is "terrified" of using a computer. This fear is bound to hurt him sooner or later. The poor IIs don't know what they're missing because they are busy protecting their status quo against the encroachment of information technology. Soon, however, their status quo will become "no status," because the world will leave them behind. They need help, but they are too afraid, embarrassed, intimidated, or just too proud to seek it. Associates who could give them the advice and coaching they need only worsen the situation with buzzwords that drive the poor IIs into even further withdrawal. At the other extreme, there are people like me who love information, and who are dismayed by the nearly infinite selection available on the Web because we have only a finite amount of time to search and absorb it. It's too bad we can't download the information directly into our brains. As for our friends, relatives, and associates who are Internet-impaired, part of their problem is with the evolution of language--especially technological jargon. Language conveys most of the ideas we share. Not long ago, while talking to a 25-year-old associate, I realized just how fast our language is changing when I used the term "wind a watch" and drew a blank stare. "What do you mean 'wind' a watch?" he asked. Some people might not remember carbon paper any more, since carbonless forms and xerographic copiers have made it nearly obsolete. At the other extreme are people who think email is exotic, have no idea what an URL is, and have never imagined using a hypertext link--or "hot link," as sophisticated 'Net surfers like to say. Keep in mind, I am talking about managers, executives, and even CEOs of successful companies. How do we help them? A little low-key, one-on-one tutoring is a good start. Find a topic of interest and show them the wealth of information that's available on the Internet. Get them to touch the keyboard and realize that it's not a radioactive device. Then reveal a few of the more useful applications--like staying in touch with distant family via email, or checking stock prices. (Most IIs do have access to a computer through friends, family, or work.) When describing what's happening these days, "change" is an understatement. "Revolution" is a better word for it. Maintaining the status quo is like sitting on the railroad tracks with a train heading your way. The old saying "ignorance is bliss" may not be quite so apt any more--if it ever was. Leading and managing people and organizations is still a people business, but without first-hand awareness (and knowledge) of contemporary communications and information technology, leaders can no longer lead intelligently. The following quote appeared in a major publication: "A new century is at hand, and a fast-spreading technology promises to change society forever. It will let people live and work wherever they please, create dynamic new communities linked by electronics, improve the lot of the poor, and reinvent government--unless its use for illicit purposes sparks a crackdown." That timely and accurate prediction could have appeared this past year--but it didn't. It was printed almost a century ago. The "new" technology was the telephone. History repeats itself in many ways. Throughout the various stages of the evolution of science, the technophobes have been left behind by the pioneers who are willing to take risks and use new technology for competitive advantage. Next chance you get, help a friend or associate who is Internet-impaired. He or she will probably remain forever in your debt--both personally and professionally.

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