Digital Literacy: The How and Why for IT Professionals


by Chris Dancy
June 12, 2012

 

You are a knowledge worker. That means that your professional life and future depend on your digital literacy. Ten years ago, digital literacy meant that you knew your way around a computer and could find information on the web. Today it means that you understand how to find and share information both on your computer and on mobile devices.

What will digital literacy mean in five years? More to the point, will you be ready for it?

As a knowledge worker, you have a set of skills that people—enterprise customers, business managers, your boss, your followers—value in you. Are you keeping up with the technologies and tools that you’ll need to exercise those skills in 2015? How about 2020? Maybe even 2035? Anyone?

Digital Literacy and the Knowledge Worker

ServiceNow surveyed almost 900 IT professionals and consumers—knowledge workers who do what you do—on the use of technologies and tools to get their jobs done. The results (published at www.service-now.com) make a strong case for more-social IT, and that got us thinking about the tools our 700 employees use to generate, organize, and share knowledge every day. We conducted an internal survey and learned the following:

  1. More than half of our employees visit LinkedIn at least five times per week.
  2. The social networks they use most for real-time information are LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google+, in that order. 
  3. Most of them rated themselves higher than three out of six on their knowledge of these social networks. They rated themselves especially high on Live, our internal Twitter-like activity stream, preferring it over external social tools. 
  4. And here’s the surprise that wasn’t such a surprise: Reputation via in-person networking is more important to an employee’s professional life as a whole than maintaining a digital footprint and social web interaction.

We were impressed by their answers. We saw that our employees knew where to find information and knew where to share it. This looked like a big competitive advantage for us as a company. Then we conducted classes on these tools and found that (oops!) we still have some work to do. So do you. So does everybody. We want digital literacy, by which I mean:

The ability to locate [that’s more important than organizing], organize, understand [that’s more important than evaluating], evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge [that’s more important than a thorough or perfect knowledge] of current high technology, and an understanding of how it can be used. Further, digital literacy involves a consciousness of the technological forces that affect culture and human behavior. (Wikipedia)

I’m writing this article to put digital literacy in the context of IT knowledge workers because, to be blunt, your job depends on it.

Technologies, Tools, Skills

Knowledge workers move in and out of three roles: creator, consumer, and curator. Digitally literate people use tools to navigate these roles and work more efficiently, especially with people using the same tools. All you need is a good working knowledge of these tools; you don’t need to be an expert.

To repeat: You are a knowledge worker. Consider that your success in any one task you perform today—even obtaining, reading, and acting on this article—is a combination of technologies, tools, skills, and the digital literacy you add to them.

For example, you used to excel at the technology of file systems in Windows, MacOS, or Linux. From that technology arose navigation tools like Windows Explorer, Finder, Dolphin, Nautilus, etc. From the technology and the tool arose the skill of file sharing. You rocked because you could help people move files around and work together.

Now the technology is the cloud. The navigation tools include Dropbox, Box.net, YouSendIt, etc. The skill is still file sharing, but when you add digital literacy, you rock because you share links instead of files, and locations to knowledge, not locations on a hard drive. Who cares about being famous for the technology (turning your department on to the cloud) or the tool (Dropbox)? Instead, be famous for the skill (sharing files and locating knowledge).

The Evolution of Digital Literacy

Go one step further and think about technologies, tools, and skills over the last half-century. Up through the 1960s, technology, tools, and skills created a base of knowledge workers whose job was to get results from machines, rather than from people. In the late 1970s and 1980s, personal computing came along, based on technology that had been in corporations for years. But the tools and skills didn’t fit in most businesses, so people became more digitally literate at home than at work.

By the mid-1990s, colleges were graduating an almost super-elite class of digitally literate citizens who entered the workplace with no business experience but with plenty of these home- and school-learned tools and skills. This brought these super-users and their opinions into conflict with established IT departments about the adoption and direction of new technologies. (Sound familiar?)

With the rise of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, this new digital elite started spending time reading and following other people’s content. The FOMO (fear of missing out) on technologies, tools, and skills became the FOMO on information. By the early 2000s, the object in the mirror was larger than it appeared. The advent of home-based workers meant that technologies, tools, and skills were overtaking the plans of many companies. How do you manage somebody you can’t watch? More important, how do you manage people who are as closely connected to one another as they are to the enterprise?

Since 2007, the iPhone, iPad, AppStore, and their counterparts on other platforms have given people the confidence that they can find new tools that will make large parts of their job easier and more mobile. They find a 99¢ app, buy it, and start using it. It’s not like 1985—or even 1995—when IT determined the technologies, tools, and budget that affected digital literacy in our jobs.

Digital literacy entails understanding and embracing the technologies and tools around you that aren’t necessarily prescribed by your company. Case in point?

Email

If you had to pay to send that message, would you? Email is the most pervasive and soul-crushing technology ever created. No job description includes “manage email,” and nobody is measured on proficiency with it, but we spend fabulous amounts of time in it and on it. If you take your digital literacy seriously, you should start by getting smarter about email.

There’s plenty more to say about email, but to get started, try adopting some of these best behaviors today:

  • The three-sentence rule: No message should be longer than three sentences. If it is, pick up the phone. If it’s much longer, you’re creating knowledge that you should document, place in a knowledge management system, and link to. 
  • EOM (end of message): Compress your message as much as possible, place it in the subject line, and append EOM. Leave the body empty. 
  • NNTR (no need to reply): This acronym at the end of your message liberates your readers from the obligation of responding. 
  • Visit www.emailcharter.org: Review their “10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral” and support the email charter.

Conversely, avoid these worst behaviors: 

  • “Reply All”: This costs your coworkers time and effort, and it’s a relic from back when it was part of your job to keep the flow of “information” going. Just knock it off. 
  • Sending after 8 p.m.: Sending email late at night doesn’t make you look heroic anymore; it makes you look like an unorganized, overwhelmed, and underevolved knowledge worker struggling with the technology. Compose messages and schedule them for the next morning. 
  • Making a liar of your autoresponder: Don’t tell people that you’ll be unavailable, yet still selectively answer email. That’s like saying, “I’m out of the office for some people, but not for everybody.” You’re just perpetuating an unhealthy caste system of access to information. If you’re going to answer email selectively, be honest in your autoresponse.

Being digitally literate means you can find and disseminate information with more powerful technologies and tools than just email.

Where Do Knowledge Workers Go for Information Now?

People rely on you and pay you to know about what’s going on in your industry right now, not last month. Look for and share information in these real-time sources: 

  • LinkedIn Answers: You can ask questions and rate the answers you get, which is better than in LinkedIn Groups. If your respondents are just putting up spam or trying to sell, you rate them accordingly.
  • Quora: This is an entire Q&A system built on the relevance of your previous answers. As more people consider your answers relevant, you become an expert and the answers you post in your area of expertise will outweigh others.
  • Namesake: Namesake is like Quora, but in real time. You can get hundreds of people to join the conversation and watch their answers come in. It’s as if you could see Wikipedia live.
  • Google Alerts: Set an alert for, say, “ITIL v3” and Google will update your feed or send you email with newly published news, blogs, video, discussions, and books containing that keyword.
  • Facebook Groups: These are miniature Facebooks within Facebook, organized around a particular interest. You interact with people as if they were friends (like, comment, share links, ask/answer questions, etc.), but all of the activity is separate from their personal profiles.
  • Youropenbook.org: This “back door” uses the Facebook API to search public updates. You can find posts by anybody who has ever said anything about the things you care about, and if their profile isn’t locked down, you can interact with them on Facebook. It’s also a good way to see what people are saying about events in real time (during an industry conference, for instance). 
  • Twitter search: Twitter has tips on using operators and characters to find tweets and tweeps. It also has an Advanced Search screen similar to the one you find on search engines. 

Internal activity stream: Has your company deployed an internal social network yet? There’s no better way to watch the flow of information inside your firewall than with products like Yammer (www.yammer.com), Jive Software (www.jivesoftware.com), and ServiceNow Live (www.service-now.com).

How Do Knowledge Workers Share Information Once They Have It? 

Finding information is one side of digital literacy; the other side is sharing it.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn Pro is a paid upgrade that allows you to search for people by skills, seniority, and other criteria you can’t use with the free account. It also gives you access to InMail, so you can contact and share information with people to whom you’re not yet connected.

When you try to connect, LinkedIn supplies the default text: “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” Give me a break. People who use this are lazy (and most people do). It takes just a few seconds to create an original introduction with something like, “So-and-so told me about you. I’d like to add you to my network and learn more about what you’re doing.”

Finally, be sure to update your profile with your accomplishments, published articles, successful projects, and new skills—people need to know what you do at your company, not just that you have a job there. The résumé is dead; long live the bio (the collection of all of your digital resources).

Facebook

Create a Facebook account, even if you don’t use it. Not having an account now actually looks worse than having one that says Kim Jong Il is your favorite celebrity. The huge shift in what you share and how you share is at the heart of how companies find and hire new employees.

If you activate Subscribe, when people try to friend you and you decline, they automatically become a subscriber to your public posts. They won’t know they’re not your friend, and they’ll see only your public links. Subscribing is like following on Twitter, and it’s going to change the game, especially as Facebook’s Edge Rank algorithm becomes more dominant in finding knowledge and people.

Many sites allow you to log in with Facebook. It’s a great tool and an interesting integration, but remember that when you use it, instead of just giving them your email address, you’re connecting them to all the information in your profile. Review your account and privacy settings frequently. (Facebook is a fabulously valuable company, but their service is free. Remember, whenever something is free, it’s because you are the product.)

Twitter

Use lists in Twitter to put sort information sources so you aren’t overwhelmed by constant alerts. You can make these lists public or private.

Hashtags are a kind of social punctuation. Tweeting “I love Disneyland” is not the same as tweeting “I love #Disneyland.” Understanding the context around a topic by using hashtags is a digital skill. You can create your own hashtag for a topic or event (first verify that it’s not already in use) and ask people to include it in their tweets.

Like bookmarking webpages in your browser, you can Favorite tweets, images, videos, articles, and quotations for later reference. Favorites let people see the tweets that are important enough for you to save.

What’s Next? 

I mentioned at the beginning that your job depends on digital literacy. Here’s why: Nobody can predict which technologies or tools will dominate in the future, but the skill is still going to be sharing new information and improving the information that’s out there. As we’ve seen, that’s what digital literacy is. Keep this simple equation in mind: reputation equals what you share times how other people value it. Your digital reputation and influence will become increasingly intertwined, and your position in search results will reflect these factors. Most important of all—and this is enough to give most of us the heebie-jeebies—when it comes to reputation management, expect the tools in your workplace to start measuring your digital literacy (say, sometime in the next three years). It’s the biggest blessing you could’ve ever asked for, but it’s also the biggest curse, so keep on finding and sharing information.

 

Chris Dancy been working in IT support for twenty years, in positions ranging from help desk analyst, service desk manager, and software product manager to ITSM process consultant, corporate marketing executive, and entrepreneur. Most people know Chris as @servicesphere on Twitter, and as the host of the US edition of the “ITSM Weekly” podcast, syndicated to 30,000 listeners monthly. His name and avatar are synonymous with social media for IT, edutainment, and his futuristic visions for IT. Chris is currently the director of enterprise apophenia for ServiceNow.

Tag(s): technology, people, communications skills, communications technology, social media

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