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Does Lack of Digital Literacy Hamper Digital Transformation?

The low levels of digital literacy amongst the average population might surprise you PHOTO: aaayyymm eeelectriik

People approach the subject of digital transformation from many different angles and many different focuses. But throughout all the discussions a few common truths arise:

  • You need to approach digital transformation strategically
  • You need a cross-organizational, multi-functional approach to succeed
  • Depending on organizational context, different members of the C-Suite can be vested with ownership, but if you paid attention to the previous two points, you should be OK

But another theme arose at the J. Boye Aarhus 2016 conference in Aarhus, Denmark which took a more internal rather than external perspective to digital transformation.

An Internal Take on Digital Transformation

Many of the conversations at the conference reiterated the three points above. But another trend came up at the conference, that of avant-garde organizations who were replacing their business focus on the customer with a focus on the employee. The theory being that to provide an excellent customer service experience you need engaged, informed and empowered employees. 

From this point of view, we can see the direct impact that the digital workplaces we create and manage for employees has on digital transformation. And it seems that (to some extent) however much we try to simplify and make things easier for employees to create or find the information they need, we only succeed in making things more complex. 

I heard one recent story where a global enterprise performed an audit of all the collaboration tools in use (synchronous, asynchronous, enterprise level, group level, etc.). It recognized things were getting bad and anticipated finding around 30 different tools in use … it turned out they had closer to 300. 

This puts a whole new spin on the idea of using the right tool for the right job.

The Digital Workplace: Big and Complicated

As part of my role, I write internal guidelines to help employees decide what goes in our document management system (constrained to our division), what goes on a SharePoint site (can be shared across the enterprise), and what goes in OneDrive (for business) or on our special secure extranet platform. My boss reminds me from time to time that because I am a geeky techie, what makes sense to me does not necessarily make any sense to everyone else. 

This point was brought home recently during a chat with a member of my team about the release of Microsoft’s Teams application. This person is a very bright millennial with good techie skills, but when considering our overall enterprise positioning — including information security rules, and the overall Microsoft productivity and collaboration stack — some of the potential overlaps had her wondering which tool would be right for which job:

  • Microsoft Teams chat versus Yammer groups versus Skype for Business group chats
  • On premises SharePoint versus Office 365 SharePoint Online versus OneDrive for Business
  • What we should push as the master “profile” for the individual 

We can get into the details of which tool should be used in which scenario in the comments below, but for the purposes of this article let’s look at what’s causing the confusion. Despite it providing some guidelines, Microsoft’s overall strategy remains, if not confused, then constantly in flux. For example, with the release of Teams, Satya Nadella seemed to relegate Yammer to the role of “organizational bulletin board.”

It is my job, and that of my team, to have these conversations. We are information and knowledge management professionals, so you might be wondering where the problem is.  

Look at it this way: if my geeky millennials are having problems understanding the use cases for the breadth of tools and systems available, then what problems are the baby boomer execs having, not to mention the non-technical legal assistants, compliance officers, mortgage specialists, bank tellers, commercial bankers and marketing people?

The Scary State of Digital Literacy Levels

Let’s pull these different threads together. A colleague recently forwarded a link to a Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) article, “The Distribution of Users’ Computer Skills: Worse Than You Think” with one word in his email: Scary!

The article referenced Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) research across nearly 216,000 people aged 16 to 65. The research found that only 26 percent of the tested population are considered Level 2 users, defined as:

“At this level, tasks typically require the use of both generic and more specific technology applications. For instance, the respondent may have to make use of a novel online form. Some navigation across pages and applications is required to solve the problem …. An example of level-2 task is ‘You want to find a sustainability-related document that was sent to you by John Smith in October last year.'”

If you add the 5 percent of the population at highest level (Level 3), that comes to 31 percent. Less than a third of the adult population can undertake reasonably complex tasks. 

The OECD represents “rich” first world countries, so it seems digital transformation is up against a potentially large and problematical issue: the poor digital literacy skills of two thirds of our population.

Low Levels of Digital Literacy Can Upset Digital Transformation

My work experience backs up these figures. The NNG article is geared towards an audience of UX experts and designers and basically reiterates what my own boss says to me: when you think you’ve made things simple enough for the average end user, think again. 

So to return to my discussions with my millennial colleague, if most of our employees are Level 2 or below, explaining the differences between Yammer, Teams, Skype for Business and Outlook email in easy terms, without use of technical jargon and in a business-specific context just got a whole lot more difficult. To quote my other colleague: Scary!

Over the years I’ve reiterated the importance of change management, and specifically ensuring the training budget is built in from the start. Organizational learning is an integral piece of knowledge management, but digital literacy goes well beyond the boundaries of the workplace to include state and national level educational policy. I will leave you with this sobering thought: the digital literacy levels of our populations create a real constraint on the forward march of digital transformation.

Jed Cawthorne is director of business technology strategy and KM in the Legal, Corporate and Compliance Group of one of North America’s top ten banks. He is responsible for Intranet, Document Management, collaboration and various other systems and technologies for his division.


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