Blogging AllianceDave GordonIT Staff & Team BuildingProject Management

How Do You Explain the iPad to Benjamin Franklin?


Benjamin Franklin was indisputably one of the greatest minds of the 18th century. Scientist, inventor, journalist, publisher, author, lecturer, diplomat, and mentor to great men. He wasn’t just the sharpest tool in the shed; he was the whetstone who kept a lot of the other tools sharp. So, if we were somehow able to transport him to the present day, how would you explain the iPad to him?

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Bridging the Context Gap

If you were to demonstrate an iPad to an intellectually undistinguished member of the football team of your local high school, he’d be able to use it in a matter of a few minutes. He’d have no trouble understanding how to use the various gestures to navigate, select applications, and so on. He’d be able to check his email, download music, and so on. And he’d learn quickly, because he wouldn’t care about the technology – he’d only care about doing things. He’s grown up around digital music, instantaneous communications, battery-powered devices, displays, and search engines, so he has the context to use it in the way the designers intended. He’s easy to train, and he’ll learn independently. But there’s a limit to what he’ll actually accomplish, because he’s not interested in how.

But our newly resuscitated scientist is an altogether different case. He’s famed for his experiments with electricity, but has never seen even a simple device powered by a battery. His writings are quoted even today, but the concept of typing came along nearly a century after he died. In his day, communication was something one did in person, or in a letter. Music was performed for small audiences in the same room until late in the 19th century, when someone figured out to record it, and the 20th century, when someone figured out how to broadcast it. Mr. Franklin won’t understand anything of what you’re trying to show him, because he simply doesn’t have the life experiences needed to provide context. But he’s a man of boundless curiosity, so he’ll interrupt your every sentence with a question about how.

Mr. Franklin is going to get frustrated, and so are you. There’s just too much of an experience gap to bridge, and maybe you need to start him off with something simpler, like a flashlight. You understand how a flashlight works, even if you don’t know anything about battery technology. Then you show him a microwave oven, but the man who invented the Franklin stove doesn’t understand how to heat food with gigahertz-band radio waves, because he doesn’t know what they are. But he’s truly interested in knowing how it works, even if he’s not particularly interested in nuking a frozen burrito for lunch. He’s not stupid, by any definition of intelligence, but he’s definitely not ready for this explanation.

What This Means for the Project Plan

If your project plan includes training, be sure you conduct an analysis of who will require training, and ensure that the materials, delivery method, and training approach match their experience level. Consider providing background instruction, or even remedial training to a subset of the group, if it will help them get up to speed with the rest of the learners. Because it’s not about how smart they are; it’s about whether they can put the information in context, acquire the needed skills and understanding, and make use of it. You probably won’t see the distinguished (and long-deceased) former Ambassador to France in the class, but there’s no point in setting up a smart person for frustration. Or the presenter, for that matter. Or the rest of the class.


For more brilliant insights, check out Dave’s blog: The Practicing IT Project Manager

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