The New Normal

Tech comes naturally to ‘digital native’ millennials? That’s a myth

By Darth Vaughn and Casey Flaherty

  • Print.

The flip side of thinking that technology should be easy (covered last post) is believing that it is too hard for those lacking natural talent. The most common iteration of this belief is the myth of the digital native.

Because they grew up surrounded by technology, the next generation has supposedly acquired all sorts of technological superpowers through osmosis.

But getting a Twitter account in utero does not translate into being able to use business technology well. It is akin to expecting the teenager who can microwave a Hot Pocket to be capable of cooking a gourmet meal. They are capable—if they are trained.

Darth Vaughn.

Survival is the threshold most people achieve with most technology. All the statistics we have suggest that very few features on smartphones, smart cars, smart TVs, or smart toasters are ever used by most consumers. People learn what they need to learn in order to do the bare minimum necessary to survive. People includes young people.

Most of the technology young people use is directed towards consumption, not content generation. When they do generate content, it tends to be very rudimentary—text messages, social media, pictures, etc. They learn to use the basic functionality of popular, single-purpose apps because that is important for their survival in their social milieu. To the unfamiliar, this can seem like wizardry. But the bulk of the genius is manifest in the app design rather than the person using it.

Rarely do young people encounter the trade-offs between usability and depth. Their standard interactions with technology do not demand depth. They have therefore come to expect usability. They expect their technology to be self-driving. But it isn’t. Like our vehicles, most technology still requires precise user input to get from Point A to Point B (for now).

Young people tend not to realize that the apps they use are like having training wheels. The training wheels come off when they encounter programs present in a professional environment. This causes frustration. Ego defense mechanisms kick in. They place the blame on the tech rather than themselves—i.e., they do not conclude that they might need to learn something. And they think you are confused when you suggest they would benefit from training. No one is more blinded by the myth of the digital natives than the digital natives themselves. Ignorance breeds confidence, and the unjustifiably confident remain wrapped in their delusions of adequacy.

How bad is it? By 2010, a survey (PDF) found that 83 percent of millennials sleep in reach of their smartphone. But, in 2012, when the OECD administered some competence-based assessments to determine whether those millennials could solve some simple problems using their ubiquitous technology tools, 56 percent fared poorly. Indeed, U.S. millennials scored 19th out of 19 countries.

This finding does not surprise us. We’ve guest-lectured almost a dozen law school classes, and as part of that have given basic technology assessments to hundreds of law school students. They are, for example, asked to complete some simple Word tasks. What percentage of the following tasks do you think the average law student gets right on their first attempt?

Casey Flaherty.

• Accept/Turn-off track changes.
• Cut & Paste.
• Replace text.
• Format font and paragraph.
• Fix footers.
• Insert hyperlink.
• Apply/Modify style.
• Insert/Update cross-references.
• Insert page break.
• Insert non-breaking space.
• Clean document properties.
• Create comparison document (i.e., a redline).

The answer is about a third (33 percent). The average law student—there are supremely skilled outliers—can only do about a third of the above. This is shocking to the many older lawyers who perform these tasks regularly with ease. But think about when, how, and where they learned. It was probably on the job (as a lawyer or in a previous life). Yet most students can sail through college and law school without ever having to do two-thirds of the tasks above. Those tasks have never been necessary for their survival.

In this respect, law school compares unfavorably with MBA programs. MBA students go through Excel boot camps because, otherwise, they will fail some core classes. They are not failing an Excel class. They are failing a substantive classes that require the use of Excel because their assignments mirror their future jobs. Most lawyers, by contrast, can get through law school without using their computer as much more than a typewriter with a glowing screen. This only reinforces an attitude that technology should be easy and, if it isn’t, it is the technology that is deemed flawed.

Technology is not easy. Technology is not a matter of innate talent. Technology is a bundle of learned skills. Exposure can increase comfort, but it does not necessarily impart facility. The partial truth that can be so misleading is that young people, in general, really are more comfortable with new technology than their elders.

But comfort is different than facility. Comfort does not mean that they are automatically able to use technology well. This remains true even if they spend ample time with the tools. We all settle into patterns and keep returning to the basic features with which we are familiar. Increasing our facility with non-obvious but labor-saving features requires deliberate practice outside our comfort zone.

Essentialist beliefs about inherent tech wizardry is not limited to age. When someone knows more than us about technology, it is very hard for us to figure out how much more they know and where that additional knowledge has useful application. This has implications both for our own learning and what we expect from our colleagues.

Like the view that all technology should be easy, a talent-centric view of proficiency with technology diminishes the emphasis on training. Either you get it or you don’t. People are either good with technology or they aren’t. If we personally aren’t, we see no point in trying to get better. We also apply these labels to those we work with. Some, we expect to be able to do things that are not within their actual skill set. Others, we don’t give the opportunity to improve. Our worldview is distorted when we mistake talent for technique.

Technology is fundamental to the modern delivery of legal services. How we approach tech competence is therefore vital to how we serve our clients’ interests.

With permission from Clio, who provides cloud-based practice management software, the above is adapted from Debunking Your Everyday Tech Myths.

Darth Vaughn is a partner and director of legal process services at Haight Brown & Bonesteel. Casey Flaherty is of counsel and director of client value at Haight Brown & Bonesteel. Darth and Casey are both principals in the legal operations consultancy Procertas and authors of the Legal Technology Assessment.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.