As the Digital Era continues to progress, social and digital technologies will become more fully integrated into not just the work we do, but how we do it. Although external applications such as marketing, sales, and customer service have dominated adoption activities and discussions to date (particularly in the context of consumer goods and services), they are basically the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately the largest and most extensive applications of social and digital technologies will be inside and between organizations. These technologies will be used to enhance just about every aspect of organizational functioning, including knowledge management and innovation, internal and inter-organizational communication, business intelligence, project management, learning, and human capital management.
As new technologies become more fully integrated into everyone's jobs, regardless of their functional focus or organizational status, there's an increasing need for all workers to be digitally literate and competent. So are we? For the most part, no. But with the right commitments and actions from organizations and organizational leaders, as well as ourselves, we can increase our current capabilities and lay a foundation for ongoing growth and development.
In this essay I describe the digital (il)literacy challenge we're currently facing and discuss some of the things organizations and leaders can do. In Part 2 I'll focus on what individuals can do.
The New Digital Divide: (Il)Literacy
As digital technologies continue to improve, get less expensive and grow more widespread, a new Digital Divide is growing. This divide isn't based on traditional factors such as geography and socioeconomic status, however: it is based on knowledge and use. In spite of the fact that we're decades into the Digital Era, most of us (especially senior professionals and organizational leaders) lack the knowledge, skills, and abilities - not to mention attitudes - necessary to effectively address both the opportunities and challenges new technologies present.
For the past several decades people have been able to get away with having limited or poor digital skills, for a host of reasons. First, for most organizations digital technology has not been a strategic priority (let alone necessity). In addition, technology applications have traditionally been relatively specific, limited in scope and with relatively small numbers of users. And perhaps most importantly, because of our collective tendency to neglect that fact that technology adoption and adaptation are fundamentally human endeavors, we've allowed technology to get ahead of the humans and human systems needed to support them. When everything is in flux and everyone seems to be in a constant state of learning, we accept (albeit grudgingly and with a fair bit of grumbling) people's ignorance, inefficiency, and mistakes.
But we can't expect this to continue indefinitely. The degree of tolerance and patience for individuals who aren't keeping pace with technology will eventually - and perhaps even dramatically - decline as the negative impact of digital illiteracy is felt more keenly in organizations through things like revenue and market share losses, operational inefficiencies, stagnation, and the exodus of top talent. Rather than naively hoping that digital illiteracy will somehow cure itself, we need to be more proactive about addressing and closing this growing Digital Divide.
Helping individuals and organizations increase their digital literacy and competencies has become a core focus of the work I do since I first started thinking about the issue in early 2011. Here are some ideas for what can be done by organizations and their leaders to increase the digital competency of their workforces.
Organizations: No More LIY
For too long we've been operating with what I call an LIY (Learn It Yourself) approach to social and digital technologies. This approach has generally been ineffective (e.g., most people still don't know how to use traditional tools like Microsoft Office products, email or the internet itself at more than a basic level), and it's even less ideal when it comes to the more sophisticated and powerful tools now available to us. Our collective suboptimization is going from bad to worse.
Organizations need to stop deceiving themselves (and their employees) into believing that an LIY approach to developing digital literacy is a viable strategy. People need help to climb their learning curves efficiently and effectively - and providing that help in both structured and unstructured ways is a critical investment that will pay dividends in both the short term and over time. A paradoxical reality of the Digital Era is that we need to teach people how to learn, in new ways and using new tools. We have to stop thinking about technology education and training as an (unnecessary) expense once people finish their formal education.
It's also important to remember that the required training should not just focus on the literal aspects of how to use specific tools and platforms. Rather, there needs to be an emphasis on understanding the underlying logic behind new technologies (e.g., what is a discussion thread, what do hyperlink codes tell us) and developing transferable skills that can be used across a wide range of platforms (e.g., html basics).
Finally, in addition to training focused on knowledge and skills related to digital tools and technologies, training related to tactics and governance, as well as education regarding key concepts and managerial issues, are also critical to Digital Era success.
For more of my thinking on this topic, check out Digital Literacy: Helping Learners Learn in the Digital Era.
Leaders: Walk the Digital Era Talk
I commend business leaders who recognize the value in leveraging new digital technologies to enable their employees to work more efficiently and effectively. This type of Digital Era leadership, however, is still rare. Most leaders do not understand the potential power and uses of new technologies - or how important it is to educate themselves about both their applications and implications (both external and internal).
Among other things, leaders need to:
- Make the increased use of digital technologies a strategic and operational priority
- Support the creation and adoption of new tools and technologies
- Develop good governance rules and processes for leveraging new tools and technologies to ensure their efficiency and effectiveness are maximized
- Allocate necessary resources (both money and time) to enable employees to learn and use new social and digital tools effectively
- Increase their own digital competencies and demonstrate their commitment by maximizing the use of new technologies themselves
What About the Rest of Us?
We certainly need support from the organizations of which we're a part, as well as the leaders of those organizations, to create and maintain environments that enable us to develop and enhance our digital literacy, but we shouldn't rely on that exclusively. Instead, we can all benefit from adopting new mental models and developing and implementing personal action plans. Stay tuned for Part 2 for some of my thinking along those lines.
In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on other commitments and actions organizations and their leaders can make.