The importance of digital literacy in social tools adoption

(updated in the afternoon of the 2nd Feb. 2013 as I remembered an interesting element from the Apollo Research institute on the future of work and a manifesto from the European Union on e-skills. New update on the 11th Feb. 2013 to include links to relevant material from Stowe Boyd and McKinsey Quarterly)

I wanted to come back to a topic I’d briefly mentioned here before as I’ve seen it referred to in different articles or studies.

In a recent E2.0 Expert Talk about “Concretizing the Digital Workplace” I drew attention to the importance of digital literacy when it comes to the adoption of social technology in a work context and Sebastian Thielke was kind enough to elaborate on that statement in an interesting blog post.

Wikipedia defines digital literacy as:

the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies

Literacy, either traditional or digital, supposes two main activities: the reading (the “consumption” of information, the ability to understand that same information) and the writing (the ability to express oneself and to produce new information or knowledge). In digital terms, having none, or one but not the other – that is, understanding how or having the skills to consume but not to produce – creates a digital divide.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute research on The Social Economy stated at some point:

because social technologies are fundamentally an interactive medium, social media literacy will require an understanding of how to produce as well as consume content

The Apollo Research Institute report on the Future Work Skills 2020 also drew attention to the importance of New Media Literacy:

New technologies and tools for communication will create a need for new literacies beyond reading and writing text. The next generation of workers will need to critically assess and understand new media formats

The European Union also launched recently the 2nd edition of the e-Skills Manifesto and in the opening lines author Don Tapscott said the following:

Across Europe there is a growing digital capability gap between the demands for digital transformation on the one hand and the skills, know-how and capability of the work force on the other

I want to focus this post on the notion of digital literacy for the enterprise though, funny enough, as I’m writing this post a friend tweets this article on 50 Activities To Promote Digital Media Literacy In Students (do you believe in coincidences? 🙂 )

With the rise of the use of digital & social tools in a work context – either to engage with customers & partners or to drive internal collaboration & improving how work gets done – I believe the topic of digital literacy inside the enterprise should be seriously considered and acted upon.

Let’s for once stop believing that because most of the new technologies seem easier to use, when compared to its previous versions (I’m thinking of the early collaboration tools) or to existing corporate systems like the ERP, that employees will fully understand how to use them in a work setting.

Let’s also stop believing that because everyone has a Facebook account it means they have a good degree of digital literacy to begin with and understand how to take advantage of these new tools to drive their work and careers forward.

As much as we’ve been (rightly so) demystifying the “build it and they will come” notion of social technology inside the company, I believe we should also demystify the “everyone will know how to use these new digital capabilities at work”.

Tools are only tools, enablers. It’s what you do with them, how you use them to your advantage (the importance of “what’s in it for me?”) that counts and on that front we still have work to do.

That’s probably one the reasons why a recent article about the social business success of CEMEX said at some point:

Collaborative literacy skills were also taught in order to teach the skill of working together via social tools

Touché! That’s what I mean.

So how to get started? I have no magic formula but I venture to propose some steps:

1. Let those more comfortable with technology help others: when I first started using Twitter I had some difficulty understanding how it worked and how it could help me. So what did I do? I watched those that had been there for a longer time and that I admired, and tried to understand how they used it. Eventually I ventured to use it more and adapt how I use the tool to what makes sense to me.

2. Consider creating a digital sandbox: we learn by watching others, especially if people we admire or respect, but we mostly learn by doing. In her book Open Leadership, Charlene Li spoke of the notion of sandbox as a “safe” ground for experimentation with technology and new ways of working & collaborating. Also, if you are teaching digital media, social business or enterprise 2.0 setup such a place to work with your students (I surely do that with mine).

3.Do not neglect the importance of digital literacy in your social business or E2.0 efforts: through formal training or social learning help your co-workers tie in these new tools with their goals and work, helping them understand how to use these tools for personal knowledge management and working out loud. The same is valid for working groups or internal communities of practice.

4. Let the community help the community: facilitate interactions between evangelists, community managers and other employees so that work on building up digital literacy can scale. Do not forget the role of offline events in facilitating this interaction.

5. Focus on what the tools enable, not the tools themselves: I often see training programs, especially those related to social media marketing, jump right into Facebook 101. It’s like teaching how to cut a tree with a specific chainsaw without worrying about making people aware of the whole forest ecosystem and the different tools available. As much as possible focus on the problems the tools will help solve or the opportunities they will help tap into and connect those with generic capabilities (“activity streams can help you signal different events”) and not so much with specific tools.

What do you think? Does this make sense? Did I miss anything? Are you working into enabling digital literacy in your organization?


PS – I’m thrilled to see that this post resonated with Stowe Boyd as he cited it for his column at pro.gigaom! Also, last week McKinsey Quarterly published a timely article on “Six social-media skills every leader needs” (free access though registration required) stating that “Organizational social-media literacy is fast becoming a source of competitive advantage”.

7 thoughts on “The importance of digital literacy in social tools adoption

  1. Understanding should be a middle step between reading and writing (or expressing). Not that I disagree with the way that you put it, just because I feel we must assess to what extent someone did understand what they have just read or heard. It is specially important in classrooms.

    And I would add Motivation to your list of steps towards digital literacy.

  2. Finally, finally, I have time to comment on your interesting post about digital literacy. I should email you a screenshot, because your post has been in my open tabs since you published the post… 🙂
    I agree with you: digital literacy is an important and neglected topic. I think it’s so important we should start with teaching digital literacy in elementary school or in middle school.
    I agree with you as well that digital literacy is about learning to read and write. I do think ‘judging’ (or: ‘critically assess’ like Bruno says), ‘filtering’ and ‘using’ information should be added as well, like the Wikipedia definition seems to point to. I wonder if ‘judging’ is harder than learning to read and write. In work practice is know many that can read and write but don’t want to do that openly (‘work out loud’).
    I’d also like to point to an article from the Dutch newspaper I read ( They ran an extra section of the newspaper about ‘searching in a smarter way on the internet’ (Dutch: Slimmer zoeken op internet’). Very interesting stuff with all kinds of tips & tricks to improve the way you use the internet. But what struck me is the economic implication of digital illiteracy. The University of Twente published a study “Ctrl Alt Delete” and they found that 5.3% of our work time is lost due to digital illiteracy. That’s 10 billion euro’s per year in The Netherlands alone! We’ve got work to do, Ana…

  3. Thanks Ana for this early thinking through .. it’ll be just about as necessary as breathing for a certain %age of the working population sometime quite soon. Your key points combined with some of Harold J’s thoughts on PKM for a networked environment are proving very useful to me, so thanks in a practical sense as well.

    • Bonjour Jon! Thank you for stopping by and commenting.
      The work of Harold Jarche on personal knowledge management (PKM) is very useful indeed, I’m so glad someone recommended his work to me about a week ago.

  4. Pingback: Leituras da Semana de 29 de Abril | Produtividade

  5. Pingback: In a social world, management’s new role is teaching social literacy — GigaOM Research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s