Digital literacy for grown-ups (part one)


Within all the chatter amongst consulting types about ‘digital transformation’ it is generally agreed that in parallel with continuous investment and clear strategies for technology, companies need to think about how their staff are going to use this stuff.

(I shall ignore for the moment Avinash Kaushik’s often ignored assertion that 90% of your budget for technology – in his case, analytics – should be spent on the people rather than the technology itself. But it’s an interesting thought to keep in mind as you read through this post…)

When you look at a whole company’s workforce you’re bound to get a range of what in the 90s used to be called ‘computer literacy’. At the extreme end, IT Managers complain about ‘stupid’ users not being able to operate their PCs, and the urban myths about wage slave drones using the CD-tray as a cup-holder abound. At the other, l33t web geeks challenge themselves to go around IT network and firewall controls to get what they need done more quickly, happily driving their egos as they do so.

But what about the people in the middle of those extremes? The late majority (and perhaps the laggards) who now have more PCs in their family homes than ever, have progressed to their second smartphone contract and also invested in an iPad at Christmas for the kids? These people are your ordinary users who may still be shy about calling themselves “technology savvy”, and use the tech simply as a means to an end. Even if that end is just to tweet Daily Hell links.

When these sorts of people are the bulk of your staff – which in most larger companies they are – how do you help them along the path to ‘digital transformation’? What do business leaders need to do to take their teams on the transformation journey and equip them with the skills and behaviours required to suddenly make established business behave like a Silicon Roundabout start-up?

I’ve been thinking about what skills or behaviours ‘digitally savvy’ people demonstrate that would either need to be acquired or be amplified within this late majority so that they can feel part of the digital transformation party. And I’ve identified 4 areas for consideration.

1. Awareness of possibilities

People who have lots of experience with the web – particularly building websites – possess a number of advantages that those without this experience lack.

First is a basic understanding of the infrastructure of the web, and how it functions.

  • They know that for each click on a web page, the browser sends a request to a server in the form of a URL, the server processes the request and sends back some HTML, another web page.
  • They know what HTML is.
  • They also know that while the server is processing the request, *clever things* happen with databases, and data can be linked together so that the response to the user’s click is more relevant.

Second, I think digital people are not scared of the technology because they have experience working it to their advantage, and NO ONE HAS DIED while doing it. Not only are they not afraid of breaking it, they use smartphones and web browsers for a lot of daily tasks to the point where it’s beyond second nature to “Google” something. By simply taking the time and opportunities to use the web more frequently to deliver everyday tasks, they have developed a comfort with technology – an enthusiasm even – which leads to further using tech for more complex jobs.

These two aspects – a basic understanding of web infrastructure, and constant usage – develop an awareness of what is possible.

2. Curiosity and drive

Once you have some awareness of possibilities, you’re going to need to have endless curiosity to work out how these new technologies and developments work and whether they can be applied to current challenges, or to those coming down the track. For the uninitiated, this curiosity can feel like a desire to permanently re-invent the wheel. I know that some of the best digital people I have worked with have a revolutionary zeal which can feel frankly religious, and to some quite off-putting.

Curiosity needs to be managed carefully. Stamping it out and effectively saying that new ways of doing things are irrelevant or impractical quickly leads to de-motivation. Equally, knowing when and where to be curious takes experience. Without curiosity though, there can be no innovation – and innovation is at the heart of every digital person’s career achievement nirvana.

Curiosity tends to be matched by ambition and drive. If you want to make big changes in a company, expecting the path of least resistance is a bit silly. Sometimes wilfully going left when everyone else is going right is exactly the right thing to do. It’s going to mean people will have to dedicate extra time to their goals and be able to hold their corner when necessary. Drive is therefore essential. (I am reading Daniel Pink’s book at the moment which gives some tips about sustaining motivation, I’ll cover those in a later post).

3. Capability

The third behavioural trait that I think the best digital people exhibit is a sense of capability. It’s more than a cliché to say that things change quickly in digital. But one thing doesn’t change – the requirement to display a capability for continuous improvement and a desire for learning.

I remember setting up my first blog in 2002 and not knowing how to initiate a MySQL database or edit PHP templates. It was a bit scary and it took a lot more time than it should have done, but I am a wiser person as a result. (Plus I can code HTML using TABLES and ONE PIXEL TRANSPARENT GIFs = old skool).

Digital people think quickly, assimilate new knowledge and skills quickly and take responsibility for their own learning and development – whether the company they work for support that with £££ or not. Often, if the company doesn’t support it they leave anyway to find somewhere that will provide that platform for development.

4. Empowerment and ‘getting things done’

Now we come to the critical part. Awareness, curiosity and capability count for nothing unless you are able to deliver.

The best digital people get very restless if they end up on work that:

  • gets bogged down in internal politics or personality clashes
  • changes direction frequently due to lack of clarity or understanding from senior managers or
  • provides limited feedback on whether their efforts were worthwhile

But I don’t think this need for empowerment is limited to digital people only, it should be a given for all managers to remove the above obstacles to success. And it takes a strong, risk-taking and very capable leader to provide this environment in which to work.

So, 4 characteristics for transforming the late majority into digitally literate grown-ups. The question is, how do we teach them, and provide the environment in which they can grow, develop and flourish? That’s for next time.

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