Constellation Research founder and principal analyst Ray Wang during a presentation at SAP SE's SuccessConnect 2017 conference in Las Vegas on Aug. 31, 2017.

Published: September 1st, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV. – If you’ve read a business-facing publication over the past two years or so, you’ve likely come across the observation that enterprises should adjust their digital transformation efforts to the expectations of workers across five generations: the greatest generation (born before 1945), baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1981), millennials (born between 1982 and 1999) and Generation Z (born in 2000 or later).

Ray Wang agrees – but says the five generations have been labelled wrong.

During a presentation Thursday at SAP SE’s SuccessConnect 2017 conference in Las Vegas, the founder and principal analyst of Silicon Valley firm Constellation Research Inc. said that when planning a digital transformation project, companies should divide their workers into generations based on digital proficiency – which one can master at 18 or 80.

“We often think about digital natives as being millennials, and I want you to break that stereotype,” Wang said. “Digital proficiency is: How well do you know a subject? How well do you know a topic? And how likely will you use it? How likely is it that you’ll put it into action?”

Rather than dividing workers by age when planning a digital transformation project, companies should be dividing them into five generations based on digital proficiency, Wang said, crediting Constellation consultant Alan Lepofsky with the concept:

  1. Digital Natives: Comfortable engaging in all digital channels;
  2. Digital Immigrants: Crossed the chasm into the digital world, forced into engagement with digital channels;
  3. Digital Voyeurs: Recognize the shift to digital but not ready to be active yet themselves;
  4. Digital Holdouts: Resisting the shift to digital, ignoring the impact; and
  5. Digitally Disengaged: Understand digital but avoiding engagement on purpose, often for privacy reasons.

“Digital natives could be in their 80s and 90s,” Wang said. “We volunteer in retirement homes – and have you noticed? They’re all on tablets! … They’re texting! They’re taking pictures! They’re online, they’re on Facebook, they’re sharing stuff. It’s crazy!”

By contrast, Wang outed himself as a digital immigrant, admitting that he drew his presentation slides on paper before reproducing them in PowerPoint.

“Now there’s great reasons [for that] – it’s tacticle, it helps you memorize things better, it’s how we learn… but that makes you a digital immigrant,” he said. “I’m under 45 – I’m still a digital immigrant! … Notice how age doesn’t relate to this.”

Digital voyeurs and the digitally disengaged can be the trickiest to identify, Wang said, but doing so can be valuable, since both know their way around technology and consciously choose not to embrace it to the extent a digital native might. It may be worth your time to learn why.

“Think about it,” Wang said. “If the federal government came to you 10 years ago and said, ‘why don’t you put all of the information about yourself on a website, and then tell me all of the people you talk to and add them to the website, and then share with me all of the things that you share with them so we can look at it too,’ you wouldn’t have done it!”

“Thanks, Facebook,” he added, to laughter.

The most difficult – and crucial – generation to reach, then, becomes digital holdouts – those who simply don’t want to engage with technology, and for no reason except it doesn’t feel right. Reaching them requires effort, Wang acknowledged – but you shouldn’t assume that means you’ll be facing a room of senior citizens when you do.

“Just because you’re a millennial doesn’t mean you’re going to be using a certain device,” he said. “Just because you’re not doesn’t mean you aren’t.”

“Age does not drive your digital proficiency.”

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