Last week, the Archer Group in Wilmington held a Trust Summit at duPont’s Theater N, featuring presentations by Mitch Joel, Julien Smith and Chris Brogan, some of my favorite people ever.  One of the stories Mitch told keeps coming to mind again and again.  It can best be summed up by saying “There’s no going back, only moving forward.”  As businesses are coming to terms with what digital communications channels are doing to business, we have to keep in mind that we can’t rewind time back to what we’re used to and comfortable with-  times have changed and there’s simply no going back.

To this point, I”m reading a great book by the vastly under-appreciated Seymour Papert entitled The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap.   It seems to me  that the phrase “Digital Generation Gap” describes  the core problem businesses are having these days- the digital generation gap and its disruption of business as usual is causing all sorts of problems and pain.

People are simple creatures at heart.  We are built to try to make our lives as easy and simple as possible.  Occam’s razor rules the day.  We want what we want when we want it.  We respond to positive reinforcement, and stop doing the stuff that’s difficult, unless we see a light at the end of the tunnel, and know the path will yield results.  We can get this wrong from time to time, of course, but the more assurance we have of success up front, the more patient we’re willing to be.

Take the case of the flashing twelve on the VCR, or get used to a new cell phone.  These are tasks that can be done or ignored in large part, if you can use work arounds, but in each case, the benefit of getting the small task done makes other things possible.  Program the time on the VCR or DVD player, and you can record shows when you’re not home.  Get used to the software of your new phone, and you can take advantage of more features.  Children and young people have grown up in a world where they readily adapt to the rules and structure of these new systems, but I would bet most families have some members who have instead decided technology is just too complicated for them and it’s easier to maintain the old ways, until they can no longer avoid it.

My mother in law, for example, wanted CD’s for Christmas, and I bought her an ipod touch instead.  She can have all her music available all the time now, and no need to worry about carrying around all those CD’s, but she still worries that she can somehow break it or otherwise make a mistake.  She teaches classes online, but computers seem complicated, they seem to break for no rational reason (yes, she is on an old Windows machine) and they’ve made her feel silly and dumb, and so she resists doing anything new.  She can see the advantages, but the thought of learning yet another new way to do things doesn’t excite her as much as scare her from trying. Trying to convince businesses to try a social media strategy for building more business feels the same way.  What’s worked in the past feels comfortable, and while they may have gradually adapted to things like email marketing, asking them to try something like Facebook or Twitter, and the whole method of engagement they’ve been using gets turned on its head- it’s scary, and there’s no guarantees that it will be successful for them, regardless of the number of case studies coming out.

We have a whole generation of people in management and decision making authority who see the world around them changing, with no real stability in sight.  They’ve been through the betamax to VCR changes.  They’ve gotten rid of all their old 8-tracks and cassettes and adopted CD’s and maybe even digital music and photography.  But they worry that what’s great today is going to be outmoded or out of fashion tomorrow, just when they finally feel comfortable with what they know and are doing.  And they’re right- things will continue to change.  The flood water is rising, and while you might be waiting for the river to crest and recede, I think we all have to get in a boat and start paddling together, because staying still isn’t the answer- you’ll drown and fall farther behind.

I’ve grown up with computers changing rapidly around me, and my kids are even more used to living in a rapidly evolving world than I am.  They still are more eager to experiment and take risks than I am.  I keep hoping to develop some sort of flow and pattern to my work to become more efficient, but that is coming more and more from adaptation than stagnation.  I need those reminders from time to time that just because I always “do it this way” does not mean there’s not a better and faster way to do it coming up tomorrow.  This sense of constant change is definitely anxiety-provoking, but denial isn’t helping.  Like sharks, we need to keep swimming (and experimenting) to stay alive.

The other part of the Digital Generation Gap that causes problems is the sense of community that grows through hazing.  There aren’t any more sure things and guarantees like there used to be- if you followed the rules, you would get rewarded later on- pain first, profit second. (Seth Godin discusses this brilliantly in Linchpin.)  We want people to do it the way we had to, so it’s hard and they appreciate the journey we had to go through, we tell ourselves.  Yet I never took any of the “pain from the depression” stories my grandparents told very seriously, and their struggle didn’t help me all that much- just because they couldn’t call their neighbors or watch TV, what did that mean to me as a child or young adult?  Somehow if I didn’t use the phone, I would have better moral fiber?  I didn’t believe it then, and I know my kids don’t believe it now when I tell them similar stories about my childhood.

Someone asked me recently if the podcasts we were doing for medical resident education was providing them “cliff notes” to knowledge.  Is it letting them off easy?  Why should it be any easier for them than it was for us?  In the end, I am more concerned that my doctor knows the right thing to do and why than how they learned it, but I also understand there’s a richness of experience that comes not from just reading a review of a book, but actually reading the whole thing.  I think the short cuts, if you want to call them that, are really about making the on-ramps to knowledge and experience easier, so you have time (hopefully) to reflect and gain deeper knowledge once you are engaged with the possibilities.

And as I write those words, I think about how this is basically the model for marketing and advertising.  We try to gain people’s attention and tease them with the prospect of our product or service, to let them see how our offering solves problems or makes their life easier, not more difficult.  We all want short cuts and friendly user experiences, so people can get to the heart of the matter- whether that’s advancing knowledge, buying a product, engaging our experience and expertise for money.  We can’t all be expert at everything, so we look for short cuts and anything that will ease our journey.  No one has to reinvent the wheel from scratch- we start out by sitting on a mountain of knowledge,  and our job is to contribute to that as best we can for our kids.

We may all carry the pain of our hazing- of the problems and experiences that made us the people we are today, but that’s no reason to make sure everyone else has to experience the same thing over and over again, ad infinitum.  We’ll close the digital generation gap in part by remembering how fun it can be to try something new, make mistakes and get on with it.  We learn most by experimenting, and more and more of life requires us to be adaptive rather than stagnant.  It doesn’t always mean it will be cheap.  It doesn’t guarantee success.  There’s risk involved.  But in the end, we learn more by moving forward than standing still, hoping it will stop raining.

(And don’t forget to check out Chip and Dan Heath’s new book about change, called Switch.  One of the best reads so far this year.)