How Much Is Digital Illiteracy Costing Your Organization?

digital illiteracy

The costs of digital illiteracy for organizations include general inefficiency and ineffectiveness as workers go about performing their job duties, compromised communication and collaboration, wasted investments in technology tools and platforms that are underutilized, suboptimized pursuit of strategic goals and objectives, and reputational effects.

In spite (or perhaps because) of rapid and ongoing technological advances, many individuals today are inadequately prepared to leverage available tools and technologies to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues and external stakeholders. Traditionally, the Digital Divide was about access and cost, but it is becoming an issue of knowledge and use (see this post for more). Given that, it is increasingly important for learning professionals to directly address the issue of digital illiteracy.

Defining Digital Literacy

Before designing a way to measure digital literacy, it’s important to define it. Both the American Library Association and Wikipedia provide solid working definitions of digital literacy. Here is Wikipedia’s definition:

A digitally literate person will possess a range of digital skills, knowledge of the basic principles of computing devices, skills in using computer networks, an ability to engage in online communities and social networks while adhering to behavioral protocols, be able to find, capture and evaluate information, an understanding of the societal issues raised by digital technologies (such as big data), and possess critical thinking skills.

Although definitions like this are focused on digital literacy in a global sense, the core concepts can easily be applied to the context of work.

What Constitutes Digital Literacy?

Workplace digital literacy can be construed to be comprised of four hierarchical components. The first three focus on basic knowledge and understanding, as well as organizational and individual applications. The fourth focuses on related skills and the ability to leverage digital technology effectively.

  • Digital era concepts. Focused primarily on job-related communication and collaboration, these include things like platforms, channels, content creation and curation, crowdsourcing, cloud computing, and cybersecurity.
  • Digital tools and systems. Digital tools include the obvious: email, chatting/instant messaging, the Microsoft Office suite of products (and equivalents), as well as tools like photo and video editors. Systems include software applications developed for specific purposes, like accounting, business intelligence, and learning management.
  • Social technology features, platforms, and tools. Social technology features include things like blogging, customized aggregators, dashboards and portals, discussion forums/threads, media sharing, user-generated profiles, and wikis. Platforms and tools include obvious public networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube, but also tools like Disqus and ShareThis and more privately-oriented offerings like Yammer, Jive, and Interact Intranet.
  • Digital engagement skills and tactics. This component focuses on the skills to use social and digital technologies efficiently, as well as the necessary judgment to use them effectively. Examples include knowing the right channel to use for a given communication, using email productively, creating and engaging properly in discussion threads and forums, content curation and validation, contributing to a wiki, and HTML basics.

Costs of Digital Illiteracy

The most immediate costs of digital illiteracy stem from the lack of digital engagement skills and tactics, but those deficiencies are often rooted in a lack of knowledge about Digital Era concepts, digital tools and systems, and social technology features and platforms. These costs include:

  • Wasting co-workers’ time and energy when they have to deal with suboptimal work, redo work, and so on. For example, when people don’t know how to use even the basic features of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs, other people have to compensate for their deficiencies by fixing their mistakes and/or trying to teach them how to use the tools properly.I recently had to take the time to clean up a document intended for publication that didn’t have headers or footers, page numbers, or any organizational identification—not to mention inconsistent formatting and wacky pagination. I also once received a budget for an event I asked someone to put together that was virtually unusable. The person who created it knew numbers went in Excel, but instead of creating the budget directly in Excel, she created it in Word and pasted it in Excel as an object. None of the numbers were formulated, so I was faced with having to recreate it or run manual calculations.
  • General inefficiency and effectiveness in digital communications. The biggest example that we can all relate to is email. We regularly have to contend with messages that are both too long and too short (and cryptic), poorly composed, full of typos and grammatical errors, with inaccurate subject lines and ever-changing recipients (included the dreaded and often dysfunctional bcc), and a host of other issues! It’s obviously not necessary for every message (email or otherwise) to be literary marvels, but they have to crafted well enough to accomplish their primary objective with minimal effort on the part of the recipients, thereby reducing confusion, potential conflicts, and the overall volume of activity.

The costs associated with suboptimal work, inefficiency and ineffectiveness may be hard to quantify, but the wasted investments in technology platforms and tools that are underused or poorly used can and do have real dollars attached to them. Many large organizations, for example, have implemented SharePoint as a document and project management system, and in some cases a communication and collaboration platform (especially after the integration of Yammer).

These firms often customize the systems to their specific operating characteristics, and the total cost of acquisition, implementation, and deployment can easily reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in many of these organizations the adoption and utilization rates are quite low—and one of the primary causes is people’s lack of knowledge and skills to use the platform and its features.

There are also larger and longer-term implications of digital illiteracy, which stem from the problems noted above. The inability of workers at all levels to effectively use the tools at their disposal to communicate and collaborate will lead to:

  • Suboptimized pursuit of strategic goals and objectives
  • The inability to capitalize on and leverage institutional knowledge and internal expertise
  • Lost opportunities in terms of creativity and innovation

Of course, there are the reputational effects of individuals who do a poor job of representing their organization via email and other social and digital channels. This may also be hard to quantify, but that doesn’t make it any less real or important. First impressions and perceptions are even more powerful in cyberspace because of the lack of communication richness and contextual clues.

Anemic LinkedIn profiles, lousy email etiquette, and the inability to leverage digital tools and platforms, for example, don’t just reflect poorly on individuals. They also send messages about the organizations that employ them.

Reducing Digital Illiteracy

Digital illiteracy is only part of the problem with the suboptimization of digital tools and technologies, of course. There are design, implementation, and governance issues as well. Learning professionals can’t address all the systemic issues, but the more they ensure people have sound digital knowledge and skills, the more they empower and enable people to work with or around the other challenges.

We need to start by disabusing ourselves and others of the notion that an LIY (Learn It Yourself) approach to developing digital literacy is an effective strategy. People need help to climb their digital learning curves—and providing that help in both structured and unstructured ways is a critical investment that will pay dividends in both the short term and over time. We have to stop thinking about technology education and training as an (unnecessary) expense.

It’s also important to remember that training should not just focus on the literal aspects of how to use specific tools and platforms. Rather, there needs to be an emphasis on understanding the underlying logic behind digital technologies and developing transferable skills that can be used across a wide range of platforms (see Digital Era Success: 5 Building Blocks for more on this idea).

Learn More about Digital Literacy

On January 8, 2015, I conducted a webcast for the Association for Talent Development entitled, Helping Learners Learn in the Digital Era: Building a Foundation for Success. Recognizing the increasing importance digital literacy plays in enabling workers of all types to learn how to be more efficient and effective, the session will offer guidance for creating a culture and undertaking initiatives to increase digital literacy and enhance learning and development. You can view the recorded webcast here and access the accompanying slides here.

An earlier version of this article was published on the ATD Career Development Blog.

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