Age as an Asset in the Adoption of New Technology
Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Great advice for anyone feeling daunted by learning new technology no matter how old you are.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about demographics and the adoption of technology. I argued that for the first time, professionals reaching the end of one career – as a judge, litigator or experienced business person – and contemplating another as a dispute resolution professional would have used a computer throughout their first careers, making them likely to expect technology to assist them as mediators. The profession’s willingness to adopt new technology has just been tested by the COVID-19 virus which led to social distancing and stay-at-home orders that blocked traditional face-to-face mediation. Dispute resolution abruptly went online, and neutrals had to learn how to use videoconferencing to continue serving clients. I recently talked to a prominent local mediator in my community, Bob Palmer, about his experience adopting the new technology. It provided some great perspective on the adoption of new technology in the dispute resolution field.
First, despite the contrary stereotypes, age need not be inversely correlated with the aptitude to learn new technology. In fact, there is a good argument that age, which often comes with perspective, humility, patience, and respect for professionalism, is an asset in the adoption of technology.
Bob is in his 70s, and in March 2020 found his in-person mediation practice had vanished due to the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders. He realized that if he was going to serve his clients during lockdown he was going to have to conduct mediation via videoconference.
He approached the task with confidence. He recognized he learns all kinds of new things all the time, the subject matter relevant to a new dispute, innovative daily technologies like smart watches, health trackers, new applications on a smart phone or new gadgets around the house. Just to take one example, if you are in your 70s, you started with hard-wired, rotary dial phones and pay phones in public spaces. Then came cordless home phones, mobile phones the size of a brick, probably a period of owning a Blackberry plus a flip phone, and then multiple generations of smart phones that hold more than a million times the processing power of the onboard computer used to land a man on the moon. Mastering videoconferencing technology would not intimidate someone who had already come so far.
With age comes the twin virtues of humility and patience. Bob sought help. He took advantage of available resources to learn the new technology.
“The first seminar I took to learn how to conduct confidential online mediations was sponsored by the International Academy of Mediators in which I am a Fellow. In March, several IAM members, who already used Zoom, held an interactive Zoom meeting with over 100 IAM mediators from around the world. The IAM then created a special on-line mediation group for its Zoom users through which shared experiences provided invaluable training for me,” Bob said. “The same week, the NADN hired Susan Guthrie, a five-year user of Zoom for mediations, to present a webinar on just that. I was very impressed with her presentation, so I quickly took one of her Learning to Mediate Online webinars. I mention again the very helpful video tutorials on the Zoom website. And, of course, I used Google and YouTube for additional information.”
In short, he asked for help and took the time to read the directions. These are traits found in mature adults that work well for the adoption of new technology. These are not traits I associate with the younger generation – at least not the members of that generation I raised. I have years of watching my now adult offspring tear open a new toy, tool, device, whatever, and, tossing the instructions aside, launch into a trial and error learning process that often leads to frustration. If the instructions are done well, they will bring you along in small steps, in logical sequence and make learning easy. The ‘getting started’ resources should be supplemented with easily accessible ‘how-to’ modules to answer follow up questions. “How-to” instructions should use key word search or other easy-to-use index to let you find specifically what you need and give you that answer in a short, concise segments. It only takes a modicum of humility and patience to use them.
His sense of professionalism drove the next step. Bob practiced before using the technology with clients. He tried out the technology with colleagues, friends and family until he felt comfortable with its use. His sense of professionalism, tempered by years of experience, taught him to make the inevitable mistakes along the learning curve where they would not adversely impact his clients. He achieved competence with its use before exposing his clients to it.
Bob wisely took the technology in small bites. He had carefully learned the basic technology that allowed him to serve his clients via videoconferencing. In his continued embrace of new technology, as he was learning to add digital signature capability to his videoconference skills when we last spoke, Bob was following the ancient Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”
Bob Palmer is a Fellow of the International Academy of Mediators (an invitation-only association of commercial mediators from around the world) and a Charter Member of the Ohio Chapter of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals, in addition to being a lecturer on mediation and negotiation. Bob’s years of service as a mediator both privately and for the courts is enriched by his diverse civil litigation experience in Ohio state and federal trial and appellate courts.