Trans-Generational Management

Court managers facing complex technological initiatives such as ECM, E-Filing, and E-Justice often encounter significant stress in dealing with a generational diversity of stakeholders.  I have long held that these differences result not mainly from different knowledge (Young people know more? Really?), but from different thinking patterns shaped by the technology environment in which people are raised.

As the rate of change has accelerated over the past half century, the technological environment within which each generation has developed its learning, processing, and action methodologies has been markedly different from that of either its parents or its children.  My parents told me I could not effectively work on homework and listen to the radio at the same time.  Teens today process (not necessarily well; but then I did not always do so well on my homework, either) multiple information streams – video, audio, text, banner – simultaneously.  Ditto most of the workforce under forty.

I offer two vignettes to illustrate my point.

“W.W.”, the senior partner in my first law firm in the mid ’70s, had fifty years experience as a lawyer and judge.   Born near the turn of the century, he came of age with telephones, the automobile, airplanes and typewriters.

With multiple phone lines, transferring calls around the office was a breeze.  W.W., though, would simply shout to the transferee to pick up the phone.  While he knew of and to some extent understood the concept of a com-line, it rarely occurred to him to use it.

Another of W.W.’s practices, which drove his legal assistant to distraction and “wasted” her time, was his habit of dictating, verbatim, every legal document.   She repeatedly protested that she could be working more productively during time spent taking dictation.  Her best friend – my wife, herself a legal assistant with the same technological framework – thoroughly sympathized.   We, more technologically sophisticated, were irritated at his consistent failure to utilize the available technology.

Skipping ahead 25 years to the late ’90s, my family’s technological environment included one landline phone, one cell phone (my wife’s), and an Internet connection through the phone line.  Our mid-teen daughters, it seemed, spent an inordinate amount of time on AOL, which effectively tied up the phone. 

One evening, when my younger daughter was on the Internet, she came to me to say that I should go to the hospital ER, because her sister had been injured at softball practice.  My wife and older daughter were already headed there.   (Postscript: a missed fly ball, resulting in a broken nose, from which my daughter fully recovered.)

HOW did my younger daughter know this? (Remember, the phone line was tied up.)   The Answer:  En route to the hospital, my wife tried calling home, but got a “busy” signal.  As she grew more frantic, my injured daughter calmly instructed my wife to call her friend, Velma, to have her “I.M.” my younger daughter at home.  My wife had no idea what “I.M.” meant, much less how to do it (nor for that matter did I). “Instant Messaging”, though, was all the rage with the teen set.

So my injured daughter talked my wife and Velma through the IM process in order to reach my younger daughter at home.

The kids processed problems and information and automatically responded with an extremely simple solution THAT NEVER OCCURRED TO THE ADULTS.  Just as, 25 years earlier, we had processed information differently than W.W., who had come of age in a very different world. 

And so the evolution continues. With the advent of paradigm-shifting technologies such as ECM and E-Filing in courts, each stakeholder’s reaction – from learning, to adoption, to assimilating the technology into everyday behavior – will be fundamentally influenced by the technological background in which he or she grew up.  Managing these diverse thinking styles day to day is challenging enough, and becomes even more so when planning, designing, and implementing major court technological projects.  Fortunately, by involving professional systems integrators with experience in overseeing these trans-generational forces during Court initiatives, projects can experience a much higher level of success with substantially less stress.

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