‘Digital immigrants’ need to catch up Marc Prensky defines the term "digital native" and applies it to a new group of students enrolling in educational establishments referring to the young generation as "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, videos, video games, social media
 Marc Prensky defines the term "digital native" and applies it to a new group of students enrolling in educational establishments referring to the young generation as "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, videos, video games, social media

Marc Prensky defines the term “digital native” and applies it to a new group of students enrolling in educational establishments referring to the young generation as “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, videos, video games, social media

Delta Milayo Ndou #digitaldialogue

Digital immigrants, especially those at the helm of industry, institutions and entities, simply need to catch up.

Some years ago, Econet created a campaign to market its roaming services that included a popular TV advert in which a distressed father called his son to inform him that the family’s cattle had destroyed a neighbour’s crop. The father, calling from a rural setting, was puzzled to hear his son respond that he was outside the country on business and was not available to render immediate assistance. The father would have none of it because he had dialled his son’s local mobile number and it had gone through as usual so how could his son be abroad and still be able to take calls?

The advert was successful in capturing the kind of incomprehension that most people suffer from when they encounter a perplexing technology.

What that advert also did successfully was to not portray the father as a subject of ridicule to the audience, but rather to take his ignorance of the roaming technology as a communal affliction not an individual failing.

The interaction between father and son created a teaching moment, where the goal was to enlighten rather than to mock.

Many of us who are adept at using digital tools, platforms or products have had those moments of initial incomprehension and, depending on who we consulted, our ignorance was either met with tutelage or with disparagement. The disparagement takes on varied forms but usually coalesces around questions such as these: how can you not have an email in this day and age? How can you not know how to use voicemail or how to create a Facebook account or how to use Twitter or how to navigate a website or how to shop, study, market, transact and interact online? How can you not know? For many people, especially those at the helm in business, Government entities — the answer is they are digital immigrants and not digital natives that is why they do not know or are unfamiliar with certain digital tools.

Stop dismissing and

start adapting

The fear of being ridiculed or being viewed as a technological ignoramus is often confronted by adopting a dismissive attitude. Most leaders in many sectors are not digital natives so their incomprehension of how certain technologies operate manifests in scepticism. It is so much easier to claim that a certain digital tool is ‘meaningless’ or to view it as a passing fad than to admit that (like the father in that Econet advert) they are completely flummoxed by it.

All it takes to master digital tools is a desire to learn because very few people in positions of leadership can claim to be digital natives. The term ‘digital natives’ derives from the work of Marc Prensky, who posited that digital natives are ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet. They are a generation that was born into a digital world.

According to Prensky, “those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are and always will be compared to them, ‘digital immigrants’”.

In this article, my focus is on those who, like myself, can be regarded as digital immigrants; users who have to learn and adapt to technologies that were not part of their socialisation or lived experience. My focus is further narrowed down to those who are leaders in industry, commerce, policy formulation and governance as well as other sectors because the extent to which they are willing to adopt technology will in many ways impact on the rate at which we advance technologically as a nation. It is the duty of those entrusted with positions of power and influence to lead from the front or to at least be early adopters of technologies.

Who taught you the

tech you know?

Not all of us can be innovators. But all of us can be adopters. The major difference lies in how long it takes for us to adopt new technologies. While the average person might (ill-advisedly) choose to take his or her sweet time to learn about and embrace technological tools — no leader in any field can afford to lag behind. In the fifth edition of his book titled Diffusion of Innovations, Everret Rogers came up with five categories to explain how people adopt a new idea, a disruptive concept or technology. Rogers said the first group of individuals to adopt an innovation were the ‘innovators’ whom he characterised as often being youngest in age, very social, willing to take risks, were closest to scientific sources and also interacted with other innovators. Although I cannot state with absolute certainty, my guess would be that the first people to adopt and embrace mobile money in Zimbabwe were likely young with a high tolerance for risk given that the concept of having your phone be your wallet was unfamiliar, much like that idea of roaming when it was first introduced. The second fastest category of individuals who adopt an innovation, according to Rogers, are those known as ‘early adopters’ and this is the category I fervently hope anyone in leadership aspires for.

The early adopters are characterised as individuals who have the highest degree of opinion leadership among the other adopter categories because they have a higher social status, have greater financial lucidity, advanced education and are more socially forward than late adopters (of which no leader should take pride in).

Those churning out technology products and services need to do so appreciating the types of people who will immediately adopt their idea and then make strides to engage in the digital evangelism necessary to teach, persuade and win over the sceptics. The third category is known as the early majority and this is possibly where many Zimbabweans (and sadly many leaders) might comfortably slot themselves.

The early majority are those individuals who adopt an innovation after a significant length of time, for example those who only started ‘trusting’ mobile money after a year and a half or more despite the obvious benefits the service provides. In characterising this group, Rogers noted that the early majority tends to be slower in the adoption process, have above average social status, and seldom hold positions of opinion leadership in a system though they have contact with early adopters.

Sometimes the early adopters they have contact with are a family member who is perhaps more enthusiastic about technological issues than they are. Many people will attest to having a family member teach them how to use a certain technology — that family member is likely to fall within the categories of early adopters or of innovators.

Leaders should not be

technological laggards

My greatest fear is that a good number of people in positions of leadership might very well fall within these last two categories of Rogers’ diffusion theory.

If this fear has any substance and holds to be true then the prognosis is dismal for our nation on all fronts. The fourth category is called the late majority and these are individuals who adopt an innovation after the average member of society has done so.

In terms of characterisation, these individuals approach an innovation with a high degree of scepticism and tend to be very dismissive on the onset. For instance, the lack of online visibility of some of the country’s biggest brands in banking, retail, industry and other sectors could point to leaders who don’t see value in having a corporate digital presence.

Most of our Government ministries have no websites and those that do have websites that are rarely updated, always have stale content and are in perpetual state of neglect that reflects very poorly on the ministry in question and the nation at large.

The level of technology-centred intransigence in some of these corridors of power is alarming.

While Rogers pegs the late majority adopters as having below average social status, very little financial lucidity and very little opinion leadership — I think the Zimbabwean context might require a re-framing of this characterisation because if we were to put some of these leaders to the technology adoption test — they would fall squarely in this category.

The final category of adopters is the laggards. The laggards are characterised as typically having an aversion to change, they are more focused on “traditions” (like clinging onto old business models) and they are likely to be oldest of all other adopters, in contact with only family and close friends.

If as a country we are to hold our own in the digital sphere and in innovative spaces — we need to begin reflecting more on the speed at which adopt innovations and the rate at which we adapt to technological change and the inventiveness with which business organisations, sectors such as education, health or industry and other institutional structures respond to technological shifts.

Digital immigrants, especially those at the helm of industry, institutions and entities, simply need to catch up.

 Delta is Head of Digital Services at Zimpapers and a PhD scholar researching on digital media, disruptive technologies and journalistic practice. Follow her on Twitter: @deltandou

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