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The New Digital Divide: Thoughts for Leaders and Laggards

Stick_figure_bridge_chasm yellowThe digital divide has increasingly become about knowledge and adoption of new technologies rather than access. Which side of the divide are you on - are you a leader or a laggard? This post offers insights into the factors contributing to the growing chasm between those who have embraced and leveraged new technologies and those who haven’t. It also offers suggestions for bridging and crossing the divide. Dialogue is encouraged and insights and questions from others are welcome.

For most of the early part of the Digital Era, we viewed the digital divide primarily in demographic terms such as geography, socioeconomic status, and age (see this Wikiepedia entry for details). But as digital technologies continue to improve, get less expensive and grow more widespread, those gaps are closing or becoming less relevant. Gaps based on knowledge and use, however, remain strong – and in fact may be getting larger. Over time it seems – and especially with respect to the adoption of social and 2.0 technologies in organizations – the digital divide is defined less by “we can’t” and more by “we don’t wanna.”

In this post I share my thoughts on six key realities that help put the current divide in perspective and offer food for thought, particularly for later adopters and technology resisters. It’s not intended to be an indictment against laggards and luddites – rather, my intent is to offer a practical assessment and generate dialogue about the challenges we face as technology increasingly outstrips our willingness and ability to embrace, adopt, and master it. To help us figure out how to move forward, I also share a few ideas on what it will take – both collectively and individually – to bridge and cross the divide.

What other realities and challenges do you see? What questions and concerns do you have? What additional ideas would you offer for bridging and crossing the divide?

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

- Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD

PS – I’ll be following this post with one focused on how everyone can increase their digital competencies. Be sure to check back and/or subscribe to the blog (via RSS feed, email and more) to be notified as soon as it’s published.


Understanding the New Digital Divide

The more I speak to and work with individuals and organizations to help them adapt to Digital Era realities and adopt new social and digital technologies and tools, the more clear certain realities become. Here are some I’m reminded of on a daily basis.

It’s never been so easy to do so much with so little. The technological and financial barriers to adoption of incredibly powerful tools and platforms are generally very low. Free and low-cost options are abundant. In addition, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud-based networks reduce (or eliminate) the need for large investments in hardware. New software and hardware also dramatically increase the ease of design, drastically reduce the time to implementation, and significantly enhance long-term system flexibility.

New technologies create a “people paradox.” Although the idea is counter-intuitive to many, people are much more central to the Digital Era opportunities and challenges we face than technology. As I discuss in Social Media: From Novelty to Utility, digital technology is an enabler – a means to various ends rather than an end in and of itself. We must view these new technologies as sources of power and recognize the importance of human beings in determining the effectiveness of our ability to harness and manage that power.

The (r)evolution is bigger than we think. Many people falsely assume that new technologies only impact organizations in certain sectors (e.g., consumer goods and services), specific functional areas (e.g., marketing), and individuals in certain types of jobs and professions (e.g., IT) or at particular stages in their work lives and careers (e.g., digital natives). The reality, however, is that new technologies potentially impact every type of worker, in every sector, at every career stage and every organizational level, throughout the world.

We get in our own way. Though technological and financial barriers may be low, psychological barriers to new technology adoption are very high. These barriers are both cognitive and affective, and each type of resistance reinforces the other. The foundation of the resistance is a lack of conceptual understanding of how new technologies enable the pursuit and achievement of traditional goals (i.e., they’re new tools for doing old things (in new ways)). This lack of understanding leads to:

  • Underestimating opportunities
  • Overestimating challenges
  • Misestimating risks

We live in the past and like to play it safe. Temperamentally, most humans have a tendency to look backward rather than forward. We concentrate more on “how things have always been done” rather than what’s possible. We’re also generally risk averse, especially when evaluating options that can produce potential gains. Given a choice, most of us prefer the “devil we know” to the “angel we haven’t met yet.”

We’re conditioned to be Luddites. Another significant barrier is that most organizations – from schools to public sector entities to for-profit enterprises – are dominated by Industrial Era thinking and operations. Ironically, even though our natural tendencies are cognitively subjective, procedurally relational, and interpersonally social and collaborative, most of us learn and work in environments that emphasize objectivity, linearity, and (isolated) individualism.

DD table

Bridging and Crossing the Divide

To me, leadership is the key to bridging and crossing the new digital divide. And it can occur in multiple forms:

Thought leaders and champions need to not just trumpet the “cool” aspects of new technologies, but also their practical benefits. They need to frame their arguments from the perspective of what people need to hear rather than what they want to say. And they themselves need to think bigger and more broadly about the phenomena they’re touting.

Formal organizational leaders need to educate themselves about new technologies, their applications, and their implications. Doing so will enable them to provide the strategic direction and the capacity – especially in terms of human capital – their organizations need to move forward. It will also enable them to adapt their leadership styles to enhance their ability to be successful in new operating environments.

Educators at all levels – and especially in higher education – also need to educate themselves about new technologies and their applications and implications. They need to then use their new-found knowledge and understanding to update their curricula and pedagogical practices, as well as their research questions and methods.

Informal leaders who understand new technologies and their benefits and challenges can help others make the necessary transitions by being champions and cheerleaders, leading by example, and offering guidance, instruction, and encouragement.

Self-leadership means we will all take it upon ourselves to understand new digital technologies and make educated and informed choices about which technologies we will embrace and leverage. We’ll also commit to learning and excelling at the competencies necessary for Digital Era success.


Related Resources

10 Digital Era Truths

12 Hopes for 2012: Enhanced Adoption of Digital Technologies

The Social Media ROI Challenge: What it Really Means (and 7 Related Faulty Assumptions)

Social Media: From Novelty to Utility

Social Media Engagement: 7 Rules for Working Smart, not Just Hard

Social Media Engagement: 5 Guiding Principles

Social Media: Coping with Time and Information Management Realities

What Does it Take to be a Leader in the Digital Era?

Digital Era Leadership: The Role of Business Schools

Social Media Education and Training: Where We Are. Where We’re Going.

Join The Conversation

  • Courtney Hunt's picture
    Jun 17 Posted 5 years ago Courtney Hunt

    I couldn't agree more, Marc, and the more I think and talk about the issue the more evident that particular consideration becomes. In case you didn't see it, I wrote a follow-up post about Digital Era Competencies that highlights the issue and includes links to other pieces I've written that talk about how to close the growing knowledge and skills gaps:

    Digital Era Competencies: How Do You Stack Up?

  • Jun 14 Posted 5 years ago marccanter

    Courtney - I couldn't agree more - yet let me add a few insights:

    This new or different definition of what the Digital Divide is - has tremendous economic ramifications.  The entire world of workforce training, economic development, urban renewal and helping the world create jobs - is tightly woven into this connundrum.

    Right now - ALL of the dollars and help funneled to those who need work - is "limited" to free laptops and net access.  These folks are then taught MS Office and then shown the door "Congrats - you've now bridged the gap!"

    That's what's going on - out there - and until we try and point out that the divide is NOT just an economic one - but one that's defined as those who feel comfortable using computers as a tool to make a living - we'll never solve this problem.  Folks have to see that the computer will be the basic tool - on which they'll make their  living in the fuutre.

    And when I say folks - I don't just mean poor folks. I mean doctors, lawyers, nurses, police officers and anyone else - who's shunned the usage of computers as their basic everyday tool.  THAT's what the Digital Divide is all about - IMHO

    Check out:



  • Courtney Hunt's picture
    May 4 Posted 5 years ago Courtney Hunt

    Thanks! And I couldn't agree more. Welcome to the new normal, where the only constant is change.

  • Courtney Hunt's picture
    May 4 Posted 5 years ago Courtney Hunt

    Indeed. Especially with respect to internal applications, we've been slowly ascending that first hill on the roller coaster for quite a while now - both because the hill is really high and because we've been moving very slowly! At some point we're going to reach the top of the hill, or the tipping point, and then the ride will really begin. When it does, it's going to wild!

  • The Write Connection's picture
    May 2 Posted 5 years ago The Write Connection

    An excellent post Courtney which certainly outlines many of the issues affecting the digital divide.

    I feel that the speed at which innovation is taking place is extending gap between those at the vanguard of change, the laggards and all the points in between. Things are happening just so fast with new technologies and means of connecting being introduced literally on a daily basis that it is a full time job even for the advanced guard to keep up. 

    I also feel that while the innovators are racing ahead in creating new technologies and capabilities from the front that it is the mass adoption of digital communications by ordinary people that is forcing the change.  This year Facebook users will pass the 1 billion mark and adoption on that kind of level is impossible to ignore. With the rise in their numbers the level of expectation from the digital consumer has also risen as and as a result companies will have to adapt to the new reality, whether they like it or not. 


  • _h0us3's picture
    May 2 Posted 5 years ago _h0us3

    Excellent article Courtney! So very true, knowledge transfer and adoption are huge hurdles to overcome. I feel that as key opinion leaders, enterprises, organizations... put into practice what you so brilliantly put forth in your post, we will see an organic "flow" that will trickle (more in the fashion of a tidal wave I trust) down and ripple outwards; it is in the best interest of all parties, from consumers, individuals, enterprises, governments, etc. So my guess it will be a bumpy but energized travel.

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