Digital illiteracy or do we know how to handle the tech?

As I was watching the E20 experts hangout “Concretizing the Digital Workplace” I notice a very interesting statement from Ana Silva (@anadatagirl). She said that there might be a lack of digital literacy and therefore a gap of knowledge within the engagement, adoption and understanding of the different Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business solutions.  At all, a point that made me think and let me put together some interesting thoughts.

Lack of digital literacy

What does this mean? A clear definition would be: People know the routines of how to use certain software and hardware but are not able to adapt their tech and user skills to changes within software, hardware or related structures of use. This will inevitably lead to a rejection of newer software approaches like collaboration platforms, mircoblog systems or even wiki platforms. You might ask if there is a proof for such an assumption. Yes, it is. Recent studies show a decline of software and computer skills. Five years ago a common user knows about the core functions of hardware and software. Nowadays people only know the routines of certain software. If it comes down to details and the understanding of structures, functions and the holistic understanding of computers people lack of this knowledge. It might be a little bit dramatic but we might see a digital illiteracy within the near future.

Illiteracy and acceptance

With the lack of digital literacy we might have one cause of the slow adoption and acceptance of social software, collaboration platforms and enterprise social networks. But let me put this a little bit further. People might not know how to use the software but they could ask how to use it. And right at this point the illiteracy takes place. Today, illiteracy is a not very common disadvantage within society. Nearly everyone could read. They know how to use a book, calculate, count and could do a lot more with letters. People, who are not able to read, count or use letters are hard to find. Not because there are too few but because of their behavior to camouflage their lack. If someone is found to be an illiterate she or he will suffer from social marginalization. To avoid such outlawing people will not tell other about their lack of skill of reading, writing or counting. They not only suffer from the lack of the skill but also from the fear to be socially marginalized. Within our tech driven and depending culture the lack of knowledge about usage of software and hardware might lead to similar symptoms:

  • Lack of skill
  • fear of social exclusion
  • aggression in connection with the usage and expected knowledge
  • using well known and accepted phrases to deny the benefits
  • delegate tasks in connection with social software

Rejection in the face of hard facts

The digital illiteracy theory might be an assumption but it corresponds with my own experience. The average user within a company would more likely deny the benefits of social software, social business initiatives or Enterprise 2.0 projects than to risk to be exposed as a digital illiterate. They defend their routine software and apps.

“We have Outlook! Why do we need another useless approach to communication?”

Even if they face hard facts like a very compelling ROI or a raise of productivity they still denying and rejecting the benefits. At this point their argumentation is very emotional and aggressive. From now on any discussion will only lead to more aggressive rejection and finally to the rupture of the talk, training or even change management initiatives. These people will take this special moment as a disruptive trauma in their experience and will reject any other effort regarding social software, training or argumentation.

How to break the vicious circle?

These statements might be redundant but they are necessary:

You got to train your employees not only to use software within a special interest or job but you got to show them the core functions and usage aside from the normal job routine.

Offer employees software and hardware with simple user interface and well known user experience.

Integrate the software and the hardware within the daily workflow of the employees.

Encourage them to asked software and hardware specific questions and not only give them a solution to a specific problem.

Give them a spokesperson to act as an ambassador and interpreter.

A very though task if you look at the almost overloaded workload of the common employee. But if this training leads to a better digital literacy it will as a matter of fact result in better acceptance and adoption of social software and therefore have a positive impact on productivity and the Social Business and Enterprise 2.0 project.

What do you think? Are we heading to a digital illiteracy?


Editor’s Note: German readers might want to have a look at the upcoming workshop on E20 literacy & skill management with Joachim Niemeier on Nov 14th. French readers might be interested in joining our next E20 Meetup in Paris discussing the need for social skill programm in the HR agenda.

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Sebastian Thielke

Sebastian Thielke ist Junior Consultant bei der Eck Consulting Group und entwickelt strategische Konzepte für Social Media sowie Social Business und Enterprise 2.0. Seinen B.A. in Kommunikationswissenschaften und Anglistik schloss er erfolgreich an der Universität Greifswald ab. In Zusammenarbeit mit OZEANEUM Stralsund GmbH schrieb er seine Abschlussarbeit zum Thema Enterprise 2.0 und internes Microblogging. Bei der Engel & Zimmermann AG schloss er seine Ausbildung zum Junior PR Berater ab. Die umfassende strategische Integration von Social Media und Social Software sowie die Schulung von Unternehmensmitarbeitern stehen im Fokus seiner Arbeit. Er ist Wegbereiter und Wandelbegleiter im Transformationsprozess von Unternehmen zu einem Social Business.


  1. Ana Silva says:

    Sebastien, very interesting post on an issue I raised during the E20s Expert Talk, thank you!

    I see the need for building up digital literacy often. With social tools developing firstly (and very fast) on the social web, people (regardless of age) usually see them as something you use in your personal life and for personal purposes, so imagining social tools in a work context is not always easy.

    An activity stream as a stream of work notifications? A blog as a platform to narrate your work or to document a project? A wiki as a collaborative knowledge system in the workplace? An enterprise social network as a way to find internal expertise and competences? Using the mention to publicly cite or draw attention to a work colleague instead of just sending them an email?

    Often people struggle with new tools & the way they fit in into how they get their work done. And they tend to default to the platforms they know well (I remember a work colleague saying that many years ago when email was introduced in the company some people would emailed something but then, just to be sure, also sent the same document by fax 🙂 ).

    I think we need to address these issues if we want to move our Enterprise 2.0/Social Business initiatives forward and want to transform the way our businesses work.