It's reassuring, if depressing, to find global networker and commentator Dave Pollard reflecting my own more limited experience of the extent to which people use online tools. He identifies a 80/20 professional digital divide In Social Networking: Why are Conversation and Collaboration Tools so Underused?:
You've seen it a million times: At a meeting with a dozen people, some of them take notes and others don't, and if you have a chance to see the notes afterwards you wonder if the people were actually at the same meeting. The people connected in by phone or online were even more clued out, somehow missing everything important that came out of the meeting. And a month later, the minutes of the meeting come out, and you read them and ask yourself: When during the meeting did we agree to do that?
One of the purposes of the new flood of social networking tools is to try to organize, facilitate and improve the effectiveness of conversations and collaborative activities. The power and promise of these tools was and is considerable, and a year ago Steve Barth even predicted the demise of group e-mails (in favour of next-gen wikis and other more dynamic tools). But most of these tools remain underused, or hardly used at all.
My general experience is that maybe one in ten people in nonprofits and public organisations that I meet go beyond basic email and web. It's a bit higher in many corporate settings, I believe, and of course smart freelances and people in the business can be way ahead and escape the technology trap. Dave offers a more sophisticated analysis than the one in ten, and a useful table to organise these divisions:
Used by Most People
* group e-mail
* face-to-face meetings without any personal documentation of learnings or decisions
Used by Those on the Right Side of the Digital Divide Only (say, 20%)
* Skype and other free global enhanced VOIP telephony tools
* discussion forums/groups
* face-to-face meetings with personal notes or mindmap documentation
Used by Power Internet Users Only (say, 2%)
* Google Writely and other online document sharing tools
* sophisticated collaboration & coordination tools and 'spaces'
* face-to-face meetings using Open Space or other advanced highly-effective conversation and collaboration techniques
Dave goes on to give a list of explanations: the tools may be unfamiliar, unintuitive, or awkward in many contexts; people's poor meeting skills can make things worse; tech training doesn't offer the opportunity to experiment. We shouldn't forget the people we wish to collaborate with may not be online ... and anyway we may not yet know who are the "right" people. We need to find them ... which may be difficult if they aren't using networking tools. We end up talking to the 2 per cent.
As I asked myself a couple of years back, does any of this really matter? As Dave points out, it can mean a lot of wasted time, unnecessary travel, and exclusion of important interests. It also cuts to the heart of the big drive toward edemocracy. If there is to be a bottom-up reframing of democracy, and new approaches to engagement, then we are going to need a lot more than 20 per cent take up. There's a real danger that the 2 per cent of enthusiasts convince the 80 per cent of policy makers and officials that new online methods are a great idea, neatly sidestepping the continuing digital divide (just because people are connected, doesn't mean they can participate effectively). The 80 per cent won't challenge this if they don't really understand how everything works ... they won't want to show their ignorance.
Dave is not that optimistic about tackling this issue:
Many people seem to believe the answer is to make the tools better and wait for the rest of the world (or the next generation) to catch up with the 2% or 20%. But I'm not so sure. The digital divide seems to grow ever wider, not narrower, and if a tool as simple, free and intuitive as Skype can't replace the telephone even for tech-savvy users, what hope is there for more complicated, sophisticated tools?
And while better education and training in conversational and collaboration skills, and in the use of enabling tools, would certainly help, my guess is that we're too busy, or don't consider it urgent or important enough, to make acquiring these skills and tool familiarity a priority, so it just ain't going to happen. A generation from now someone will write an article very much like this one, and nothing will have changed.
Fortunately he has a positive suggestion:
So let's try an experiment in online collaboration, using Google Writely, one of the right-column tools, and see if we can come up, through conversation and collaboration, with some better answers, or at least an understanding of why social networking tools aren't going to change the world. You can find a copy of this article on Google Writely here.
Dave then goes on to invite you to email him so he can sign you up to Writely, and to contribute ideas and answers to some questions he poses. See his post for details.
So many commentators on social networking concentrate on the 2 per cent of enthusiasts, throw in more tools and exhortation, and I think can just end up making people feel yet more depressed an disempowered.... so I applaud Dave's reality check and practical suggestion. He also does a lot of face-to-face networking, so I'm hoping for a report from a workshop to address these issues too. Or maybe we could also do a bit of that and report back. One approach would be to encourage people to create some stories about how tools can be really useful in their situation. That might help bring how far use of tools relates to people's personality and preferences. Anyway, thanks for the conversation starter Dave. I'm signing up.
Update: Dave has now published the results of the Writely collaboration. I did sign up, but didn't join in because it was, well, messy. As Dave says: "The collective work-product of Writely, like that of most wiki tools, is truly ugly unless some uber-editor comes in and does clean-up work." I'm sure it works better if people have collaborated before, and have some protocols to work on... and anyway, there were some good ideas buried in there.