Kids aren’t the IT power users we thought they were

It was enough that John Kenneth Galbraith, the great Canadian economist who died last year, came up with the term “conventional wisdom.” He couldn’t possibly have known what it would include, or how long it would take to disprove it.

An Ipsos-Reid study released this week tried to debunk one of the longest-held pieces of conventional wisdom around IT, and particularly the Internet: that kids are better at it than we are. In Inter@ctive Teens: The Impact of the Internet on Canada’s Next Generation, researchers show that most young people spend only 13 hours a week online, compared to adults, who spend 19 hours surfing. More significant is the stat that only 28 per cent of online teens consider themselves “expert” or “skilled” in such technology. The assumption was the opposite – that growing up digital was an onramp to success in the working world. Gen Y kids, we all hoped, will enjoy a shorter learning curve and a more intuitive ability to embrace electronic business processes.

These figures are not exactly popping that balloon, but they might serve as a helpful reality check as IT departments plan their training and development programs over the next several years. The study reminds us that we can’t presume digital literacy, and that it’s probably better to set our expectations fairly low as we introduce more IT into the way they do their jobs. There’s a big difference between downloading MP3 files when you’re supposed to be doing homework and managing information that goes into and out of a data warehouse. Even supposedly simple assignments around content management could stymie experienced Web users, given the preponderance of custom-built CMSes.

The other takeaway from the Ipsos-Reid research is the primary drivers for online teenage activity. There, at least, conventional wisdom appears sound: 88 per cent had participated in a social network of some kind. This may body well for future enterprise collaboration projects, or even simple communication practices among workers connected via BlackBerry or Outlook account.

What may be difficult to measure are the underlying attitudes of teens in relation to technology. Older workers, in many cases, seemed outright afraid of computers when they first became office staples. They were not hesitant to admit their inexperience or even their resistance. We should be thankful young people are not too quick to call themselves expert. If they are aware of their knowledge gaps but less intimidated by the platforms, training and development may in fact run more smoothly.

Think of it this way: Conventional wisdom says most people today would know how to use a phone. Not many of us would consider ourselves proficient in the myriad features of all cell phones, however. Even experienced users have room to grow. In this case, kids are still kids. It’s not like they’re IT managers.

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