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 so far (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 organizations. These technologies can be used to enhance just about every aspect of organizational functioning, including knowledge management and innovation, internal 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 Part 1 of this two-part essay I described the digital (il)literacy challenge we're currently facing and discussed what organizations and their leaders can do to bridge the new Digital Divide. Now I turn my attention to some of the things individuals can do.
Digital Illiteracy is Not Okay
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. Our deficiencies are exacerbated by two tendencies:
- Overestimating our own capabilities (i.e., we don't know what we don't know - but we think we do)
- Disdaining and/or dismissing the capabilities we know we lack
It perplexes me why anyone would think it's okay to be digitally illiterate, let alone present it as a point of pride. But I continue to see otherwise educated and accomplished professionals proclaim and demonstrate their ignorance with no apparent sense of shame (see, for example, this essay from a surgeon). Being digitally illiterate should be considered this era's equivalent of being un(der)educated, and having poor interpersonal skills, bad personal hygiene, and sub-par professional standards. It makes people look ignorant and unpolished. It undermines their professional identities and could lead to people taking them and their ideas less seriously. Many of the comments to the surgeon's confessional illustrate this.
An extension of the idea that digital illiteracy is somehow okay is the notion it's not a deficiency that needs to be addressed. To date very few of us have made a strong and consistent commitment to increase and enhance our digital competencies. Many claim not to have the time, and/or act as if being savvy about digital technology is somehow beneath us. Some of us think we can get a pass because we're not "digital natives."
But what we don't know CAN hurt us. 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 losses, operational inefficiencies, and the loss of top talent (this recent example from IBM doesn't illustrate the best approach to helping workers increase their digital competencies, but it does reinforce how strategically important a digitally competent workforce is). Rather than waiting for a crisis, shouldn't we start to prepare ourselves for the inevitable?
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 (as discussed in Part 1), 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.
Adopting a New Mental Model
Our new mental model for communicating and collaborating with others should be inclusive and holistic. Digital communication should not be viewed as an adjunct to other communication forms; rather, it should be fully integrated into the ways in which we connect with others. We should rely on ALL forms of media - both traditional and new - to achieve our goals and enhance our experiences. Flexibility and adaptability should be considered better markers of digital literacy than voracious consumption of new technologies.
We must also recognize that at a fundamental level, digital technology doesn't dramatically alter what we do, but it does give us "new tools for doing old things." The idea isn't to use the new tools just because they're shinier and everyone else seems to love them. We should use them because they allow us to accomplish things in better ways by enabling us to access a wider range of (more current) information, minimizing bulk, reducing paper production, etc. In other words, digital technology can increase both efficiency and effectiveness.
We must understand and employ a "right tool for the task" approach to communicating. Have a quick message to communicate (e.g., "be there in 5" or "what time is the meeting?")? Use texting, instant messaging, or a chat tool. Want to collect input on an issue that needs to be addressed or decision that needs to be made? Start a discussion thread via a shared communication platform. Need to have a discussion with one or more individuals in real time? Use the phone or meet in person. Is the subject complex, sensitive, or difficult? Meet in person if possible.
We should embrace the idea that the more we all engage with digital technologies, the more everyone benefits. Technology isn't a cure-all and there are certainly challenges, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Costs and risks are inevitable, but they shouldn't be used as an excuse to avoid progress.
Finally, we must accept that the over-reliance on the distinction between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" is counter-productive. Fluency is a state of mind, not a factor of chronological age. Technology doesn't care how old you are. Anyone can be as digitally sophisticated as they choose to be.
Developing and Implementing a Personal Action Plan
The key to this action plan is making time to become more digitally aware, literate, and active. No one is ever going to find the time. Fire-fighting and short-term demands are always going to be a demanding distraction. We must carve out time each week (ideally, daily) to focus on non-urgent but critically important digital technology-related issues and tasks.
We must educate ourselves, both conceptually and tactically. That means understanding digital technology trends and issues at a high level, paying attention to how seemingly disparate topics are in fact connected, and experimenting with specific tools and technologies sufficiently to have a basic idea of how they work.
We have to focus on digital engagement that has true strategic value. Irrationally jumping on digital technology bandwagons is a waste of time, effort, and resources. Technology should not be a solution in search of a problem. The key is to know what our objectives are and then determine the best strategies and tactics for achieving them.
We must make digital engagement a tactical priority. If being more digitally engaged has strategic value, then the associated tactics have to be made a priority. They can't simply be layered on top of existing practices, and they can't be constantly relegated to the back burner. They must be integrated into our activities efficiently and effectively.
We should commit to learning at least one new digital concept or trick each week. Each of us should develop a list of things we need/want to learn, find the necessary resources, and then learn and apply the knowledge/skill. We should take a crawl-walk-run approach to our growth by keeping the things on the list simple and manageable (e.g., how to hyperlink text, how to embed a video, what a hashtag is/does, what a discussion thread is).
We should be willing to pay for courses and/or employ the services of a digital coach or mentor to help us climb our learning curves faster and better, and to help us tackle more complex subjects. No use trying to educate ourselves on our own if leveraging someone else's expertise is a smarter way to get us where we want to be. Afraid of being embarrassed or looking stupid? Get over it. Persistent ignorance and ineptitude are far more damaging than admitting you don't know something and need help. And a good teacher will never make you feel bad for the knowledge and skills you lack.
We have to commit ourselves to developing better digital habits. Everyone can learn how to work with the digital tools at their disposal more efficiently and effectively, including (and especially) email and Office products. We can learn from what others do when we're working side-by-side. We can ask friends and colleagues for their favorite time-saving tips and tricks, and have them show us what they do and how.
Finally, those of us who are more digitally literate and sophisticated can help others learn and grow by being champions and cheerleaders, leading by example, and offering guidance, instruction, and encouragement.
The Role of Education in Enhancing Digital Competencies
In addition to the work done by organizations, their leaders, and ourselves as individual professionals, there's also an important role for academic institutions to play in helping workers at all levels and all career stages develop the necessary competencies for Digital Era success. From elementary school through higher education, we need to learn not just our ABCs and 123s, but also our 0101s.
To achieve this, educators at all levels - and especially in higher education - 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. I'll return to that topic in my next essay.