Digital Literacy: Buzzword or Job Requirement?

Modern knowledge workers need technical knowledge

Graduation season just finished and the air still rings with bad advice given to bored students. Calls for “digital literacy” filled many auditoriums as speakers unclear on the concept tried to hype technologies such as Twitter without understanding the technical details they struggled to explain. That made me wonder what people mean when they say digital literacy, because I can think of a dozen definitions. So I asked around, and my suspicions were confirmed: if you demand digital literacy for your employees, be prepared to define exactly what you expect.

“Knowledge workers” sitting at computers all day have become the leading stereotype of the typical employee in the US. That's true for many jobs, especially as manufacturing jobs in the US decline. But how digitally literate do “service workers” need to be? As key cards and computers replace time clocks and punch cards, just about every employee deals with computers of some kind in multiple ways during each work day.

Michael Dortch, a long-time analyst on enterprise IT topics, told me that, “the ability to navigate basic online functions such as e-mail and search is increasingly not just a job requirement, but a life requirement.” I know from my children that universities automatically assign e-mail addresses for use by the school and all professors, so students must have at least that much “digital life requirement” proficiency.

Studies last year said seniors (55 and older) show the highest percentage increase among those just signing up for Internet access. Are there still substantial numbers of people in the US who don't know how to use the Web and have e-mail? How many of those are still in the work force? Looks like we've already updated literacy to include computers along with reading and writing.

Cheryl Snapp Conner, PR person supreme, said, “I would maintain that digital literacy is certainly a job advantage if not an absolute requirement these days.” She seems to agree with Dortch that, at least for white collar jobs, “literacy” assumes a minimum level of technology mastery.

But Conner expands beyond computers saying, “I would define digital literacy as the ability to use new tools such as smartphones and social media to full business advantage.” Just about everyone can use a cell phone, but can you leverage a smartphone to help your business? If your company needs to support mobile and remote employees, those employees need to include smartphone literacy on their resume. And your IT employees or consultants better include smartphone support on theirs.

Kim Brand of FileEngine and Computer Experts in Indianapolis <> supports employees of many small businesses. Fixing computer problems often means fixing operator problems, and Brand wants details. “If it was a job applicant, I’d rather see ‘Proficient with Word, Excel,’ Digital Literacy is abstract and may have been useful a long time ago. Today, the need for competence is concrete.” This drills us deeper into resumes. Is digital literacy enough for an accountant, or do you need certification in Excel and QuickBooks?  Make sure job postings for new employees list exactly what software your applicants must have mastered to be “digitally literate”to your satisfaction.

Even if your employees can use a computer well enough, does that fulfill all the implications of digital literacy? Or do you expect more than rote learning and proficiency with certain applications?

Gary Doan, co-founder of unified communications supplier SOTACOMM, wants more. “Digital literacy is the ability to understand the concepts of information and communication technology.” Is Doan going overboard, or has his constant struggle to educate customers on modern telephony and unified communications colored his definition too much? I believe more productive employees can do more than just “use” technology, but can actually leverage technology to help their companies in many ways.

As knowledge workers, we always need more knowledge. Peter Shankman, frequent worldwide speaker on public relations and founder of Help A Reporter Out, is a curious guy. He told me digital literacy is “the ability to find information, on demand, using any viable online means to do so, without hesitation.” This definition drills down beyond using a browser into using search engines, evaluating results, and making intelligent use of the materials uncovered. That's a tall order, and I don't believe high school educrats advocating digital literacy as core curriculum have a grasp on this level of detail.

Finally, since I promised a link back to people I quoted in this column, David Strom told me, “Digital literacy means being able to understand what a 'link back' actually means, how to do it, and watch the results of doing so.” Sounds like Strom and Shankman are drilling pretty deeply into advanced levels of digital literacy.

Global efforts to improve digital literacy abound from groups such as the Information and Communication Technologies Digital Literacy Portal. Of course, increased domestic and worldwide broadband adoption both supports and demands digital literacy. An example of a company providing training is Certiport and their Internet and Computing Core Certification program.

Must your employees be digitally literate? Almost certainly. But the details of that literacy must match the work you want them to do for your company. Although digital literacy is a fairly new term, it's already out of date for modern knowledge workers.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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