person standing in front of six paintings in a gallery
PHOTO: Clem Onojeghuo

Why doesn’t deploying new technology alone result in gains to efficiency, productivity, engagement, worker happiness, and all of the other benefits we often list as our goals for the modern, digital workplace? The answer is simple: it isn’t about the technology. The true benefits of advanced technologies can only be realized if we know how to use them to their fullest potential. We often call this “digital literacy.”

That term, however, doesn’t work for me as I don’t think it means what we think it means. In the past I've described it as one’s “digital IQ,” but of late, I have come to prefer “digital proficiency.” Digital proficiency is the measure of capacity to use digital technologies to one’s benefit. This description lends itself to looking at digital proficiency as a spectrum. On this spectrum, like in language, literacy is the initial level. Next comes fluency, and then mastery.

Adoption — and the related change management practices that enable and support it — is a key factor and primary step to achieving the benefits we seek. But if all we achieve is moving people from one application to another, we will only realize minimal gains from the small improvements that are sometimes evident from one feature set to the next. 

Real gains come from changing behaviors. For example, if a person prefers to browse the pages of the intranet to locate the information they need, it won’t improve her efficiency and productivity when you implement a new search engine or add the ability to include pages on a quick launcher on the homepage. You have to make she is aware of these changes and teach her how to use them, all while conveying the benefit she will personally gain for learning and adapting to a new process.

Through this example we see how digital proficiency is a key to digital workplace success. Great! Let’s all make sure we add some funds in our 2019 budgets to go buy some digital proficiency for our organizations! Wait … it doesn’t work like that? No, it doesn’t. That is why it is such a difficult target to hit.

Let’s take a closer look at those three levels on the spectrum.

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3 Levels of Digital Proficiency

If digital proficiency is the measure of capacity to use digital technologies, then we need a gauge for our measurement. Thankfully, one readily exists in the world of linguistics.

Literacy

Literacy is generally defined as the ability to read and write, which means to both consume and produce. You have to be able to recognize, decipher and comprehend the subject matter, as well as create and distribute it to be deemed literate. Literacy in the digital context is therefore foundational. In the example above regarding finding information on the intranet, navigating webpages and using menu structures represents literacy. Navigating is a basic skill for the digital landscape.

If we only get our organizations and workforces to become digitally literate, we’re giving them the skills of third graders. We need to aim higher.

Fluency

Fluency is the next step up. Fluency is typically described as being “easy.” It is the stage when a certain skill, be it language or digital, becomes second nature. The user is able to get things done easily with accuracy and precision. Again, in the prior example, using precise search terms or pinning the page to a quick launcher are examples of digital fluency. That doesn’t mean that search is inherently a “second level” skill, but knowing how to use it effectively and with a high degree of accuracy is. Anyone can search, far fewer can quickly find what they are looking for.

Some say it is up to designers and developers to create technologies that are easy and simple to use. I don’t disagree with that as a good idea in general. However, we cannot ignore the impact that teaching our workforces better skills and uses for the technologies we provide them will have on the big goals we set out to achieve.

Digital fluency is a much better target that we should be going after with our workforces. Digital fluency is a perfectly fine end state for the majority of people in our workplaces. But what comes next?

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Mastery

Pablo Picasso is attributed as saying you have to “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” In a nutshell, that’s mastery. From a language perspective, Shakespeare comes to mind as a true master. He not only manipulated language to his desires but is accredited with inventing hundreds of new words and new uses of words. Does everyone in our organizations need to be Picasso and Shakespeare? Definitely not. But hopefully you will have a few.

I equate digital mastery to taking a technology and pushing it beyond the simple features and obvious uses to leveraging it in a way its creators may not have envisioned but that is equally, if not more so, useful. To return once more to our intranet example, mastery might mean setting up a notification with workflow automation tools that alerts the user when information on the page changes or is updated. Now the user doesn’t have to keep going back to check to see if the information is still relevant, but will instead get notified when it changes. This is a far more efficient use of technology, but not one that every user will know or know how to employ.

Today’s digital platforms more readily make versatile and innovative applications of technology accessible to end-users. Many are built with the purpose of allowing end-users to define their uses and not to dictate specific methods. This is especially true in workstream collaboration applications like Microsoft Teams and Slack. It is also true for platforms, which is one of the biggest benefits inherent over bespoke applications: they don’t dictate exactly how they have to be used, but rather they provide a foundation that can be leveraged to meet user-oriented needs. When people start to build upon the platforms provided to them, digital mastery is taking hold within the organization.

Related Article: Poor Digital Skills Hinder Digital Workplace Progress

Applying the Digital Proficiency Concept in Your Organization

Digital proficiency is more than just a concept that we practitioners can debate and discuss. For starters, we can use these three levels as a way to inform and define our needs and goals. With the variety of digital workplace technologies that we have at our disposal today, we need to be conscious of where we need to reach literacy, fluency and mastery. Again, not everyone in the organization needs to be a master with every available tool. The proficiency needs might vary by workgroup and application at your organization. These variances could be captured as part of personas, for instance, that show the current and desired proficiency level across different technologies or capabilities.

By thinking in these terms, we can better guide the content of training programs, overall change management activities, and help cultivate a digital first mindset. In fact, raising the digital proficiency of our workforce will likely result in reducing many people's confusion about which application to use for which activities and outcomes. Wouldn't it be nice to one day put aside the debates on what tool to use when?