Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thoughts on Grown Up Digital, by Don Tapscott

And I looked and beheld a great pale horse and his name that sat on it was Net Generation, and the Future followed with it. And Power was given unto them over the Internet, to create with blogs, and wikis, and tweets, and to usher in the New New New Economy.

Here are some of my observations about and around the topics of "Grown Up Digital," by Don Tapscott. In short, it's a good book, not a one-pager, and serves good food for thought -- though I don't agree with all its generalizations. Well worth reading and meditating upon: a keeper.

The general idea is that those currently between 11 and 31 form the Net Generation (NG). NGs have distinct attitudes, values, and life styles, and the motile force behind that distinction is their integration of communication and information processing technologies in day-to-day life. This integration has important implications for the design of institutions: family, democracy, education, work, commerce, and entertainment.


Many non-NGs believe the NGs to be the dumbest generation ever. Kids these days, I tell you, with the clothes and the music and the hair... oh sorry, I mean with the texting and the ipods and the twitter... Yes, I'm being sarcastic. But there's a lot of criticism leveled at the NGs: they don't pay attention, they are coddled by their parents and teachers, they can't concentrate on anything for more than a minute, they don't respect their elders' wisdom, etc.

Tapscott presents the critics' position and his short rebuttal in this video; the book elaborates on both. In all fairness, most criticisms of NGs are based on anecdotes, while the rebuttal is based on a systematic proprietary study. Of course, this study has its own critics, who mostly raise questions of methodology.

Because the book's research is proprietary and not available for peer review, I can't address criticisms of substance that hinge on assuming methodological errors. Note that there's no evidence of methodological errors, but closed research is frowned upon by academe and considered suspicious therein. Having worked both in academe and consulting, my view is that the people who paid the $4M for the research have a right to restrict access to their results; given the importance of the topic, partial replications will appear in academic journals eventually.

Even if the methodologists were right and Tapscott's data was full of selection effects, that would only make a tiny difference in the impact of the book. It's a matter of order statistics, you see.


Suppose there are 11 pizza parlors in Extremeville; ten produce mediocre pizza at high cost, one produces great pizza at low cost. The median quality of a pizza parlor is mediocre and its cost is high. Yet, the median quality of the pizza consumed in Extremeville is great and the cost is low. This apparent paradox is solved by noting that almost all pizza consumed in Extremeville comes from the good pizza parlor.

This is why I believe that even if the methodology criticisms were correct, and Tapscott's data were rife with selection effects, it wouldn't matter. If the median NG only uses the new technologies to produce gossip, but the NG-enabler technologies afford the most creative and productive NGs tools, channels, and feedback, we all win.

The idea is that the change in technologies and its effects on the NGs allow future Pages and Brins and Zuckerbergs to flourish, and institutions should focus their attention on these outliers, instead of making laws and designing institutions based on the critics' worry that Page, Brin, and Zuckerberg's NGs classmates are more interested in Kendra Wilkinson's new reality show than in learning calculus or Latin declinations.

To be clear: this is my argument, not Tapscott's, and I present it to make the point that even if the critics were correct it wouldn't matter.


(Need a balance here between explaining the norms and cutting into Tapscott's book sales, so if you want elaboration I recommend reading the book.) NGs want and prize:

1. Freedom. NGs tend to pick the freedom side of the freedom-security tradeoff in many areas of life. This has led to some interesting developments in the workplace and education, and also to some of the most vociferous criticism of the NGs by those who focus on processes rather than outcomes.

2. Customization. Many people like customization, but to the NGs it is part of their basic cultural ethos. Customization is one of the inexpensive luxuries born of the digital nature of most value propositions and cheap short-batch fabrication techniques. Having come of age with these inexpensive luxuries, NGs take them for granted.

3. Scrutiny. Easy access to data allows NGs to check on the authoritativeness of some authorities -- to the detriment of many of these authorities. Add to that an attitude of skepticism and the willingness to spread one's opinion and the NGs are big scrutinizers.

4. Integrity. Huh? Don't they steal a lot of intellectual property? Yes. On the other hand, they're also active watchdogs of the excesses of institutions. Given how thorny issues around IP can get, and how ham-fisted-ly the IP-holders have behaved, let's call this one in favor of the NGs for their policing of the institutional fringes. (My position, not the book's.)

5. Collaboration. Online forums; blog comments; Facebook and Myspace; instant messaging; wikis; open-source software... does anybody not get the point? (Unfortunately, yes.) Too much openness, however, is leaving the NGs privacy-deficient. Those drunken Spring Break photos on Facebook can and will be used against you in a job interview.

6. Entertainment. An outgrowth of both technological lowering of the cost, and economic conditions favoring the production and consumption, of entertainment, again as the NGs came of age -- thus taking it for granted and demanding/expecting it in all facets of life.

7. Speed. Partly because of technological change and partly because they moved much of their communication to asynchronous high-bandwidth channels (that is, instead of meeting in a cafe to talk they send written instant messages), NGs have a preference for immediacy that is much stronger than previous generations. This can be overwhelming even to NGs, though not as much as to those older people.

8. Innovation. Because they were born in an environment that was changing rapidly, NGs are more receptive to innovation; or, better said, because their product-space environment was always turbulent, they never had time to develop the inertia characterizing a majority of the earlier generations.

The book elaborates on the implications of these norms to all institutions of modern life. The following are some of my thoughts on the two that interest me most, education and marketing.


New learning for a new generation, or a new generation that actually wants to learn and understands that lecture-based education has never worked well?

Sometime in my first week of graduate study, I was told the learning rule: 1% is the lecture, 9% is studying, 90% is solving the problem sets. Practice is how you really learn something. Lectures are not made obsolete by new technologies, they were made obsolete by the technology of printing.

(Philip Greenspun writes a longer piece on this, well worth reading. I especially like the part about separating the teacher from the grader.)

There are some uses for the occasional lecture, especially when there is no alternative source of the knowledge in the lecture: a research talk discussing recent research; an overview of a field motivated by recent news of interest to the class. But, as a general rule, reading or some form of multi-media self-directed study, followed by practice and application, is a better way to absorb knowledge. The lecture does offer the possibility of interaction, of asking the lecturer a question or starting a discussion with the class, which is one of its last reasons for existence.

[How I hate to say this, but] Harvard Business School's use of participant-centered learning does explore this one advantage of the classroom over the multi-media self-directed study materials. Because a well-managed discussion can raise many more questions than study and practice, there's a place for universities as interaction centers. The reason why this is different from the interaction in a online forum is that the HBS participant-centered learning has a strong emphasis on the "managed" part. For all its apparent spontaneous fluidity, the discussion in the classroom is highly choreographed, without appearing to be so to those students involved.

Is it worth it? If well done, no doubt; it combines self-study with community interaction and gets the advantages of both. As it is done most of the time, it's a complete waste of time for all involved. A good study plan, with practice exercises and problem sets, a discussion forum, and good testing materials would replace most lectures that "also use the case method." And would yield greater learning and lower cost.

Elaborating on the ideas in the book, Tapscott writes about the impending demise of the university as we know it in Edge. Sometimes I think "good riddance," sometimes I think universities are foundation institutions in a society; so I'm torn between the piece's position and the value of having research institutions where young minds can be exposed to the best thinkers in their fields. Which is only relevant to those fields where the best thinkers can be found in universities, I guess... I defer to my personal hero's opinion on some academic fields.


Consumers who do research, who communicate with each other, who prize integrity, who care about the implications of their consumption activities: NGs are what the nightmares of those with 1960s marketing attitudes (still widespread in 2009) are made of.

How can you sell the same product for twenty different prices (to extract that sweet consumer surplus) if search engines allow customers to find low prices effortlessly? How can you sell your old products, 10% of which leave the factory defective, when consumers can immediately post their experiences with them and deter those buyers who might get the 90% which work? How can you lie to consumers anymore? -- Yes, if lying, cheating, being asleep at the wheel, not understanding consumers, not tracking their trends, and generally ignoring value creation, is your idea of marketing, then your nightmares have came true.

Same for some marketing academics: If your brand new marketing communication textbook has a section on "the Internet," tacked on at the end, ignoring the distinctions among email campaigns, SEO (Search Engine Optimization), online forums, Twitter, blogging, Facebook, etc, and their implications for the new value proposition, you're not avoiding irrelevance. You're just signaling how clueless you have become.

Ironically, NGs make better marketing targets than the previous generations. The very social norms that make them harder to reach by incompetent marketers, oops, I mean "marketers who cannot adapt to change, learn new material after their MBAs, or understand the analytics revolution," make NGs great sources of business intelligence, great collaborators in new product design, and customers highly receptive to that great marketing tool "planned obsolescence," or in its more politically correct name, "new and improved next generation product."

I have many thoughts on this, which I'll probably write up in the future, but the essence of these thoughts is captured above. Some of them touch on the discussion in the book, some of them are orthogonal and more technical marketing and strategy points. However both Tapscott and I (and many others) are in agreement with the basic point:

Marketers who cannot learn and will not change are toast with the NG. Much more so than with the previous generations of consumers.


This book is definitely worth reading and pondering. I bought a copy even though it is available from the SF public library, which -- given the overpopulated shelves of my humble abode -- is a very strong recommendation. Definitely worth elaborating upon and arguing with, either inside your head or on the Grown Up Digital web site.

NOTE: The opening paragraph is my take on Revelations 6:8 after reading Grown Up Digital, not a quote from the book.