Why Digital Literacy Matters

Why Digital Literacy Matters

Today, I’m quoted in a Wall Street Journal article about digital coaching and training for c-level executives. The piece — entitled Bosses Learn Not to Be So #Clueless — focuses primarily on the various ways large, traditional organizations close the digital divide by imparting basic digital skills to the members of the senior ranks. The article features stories of senior ad execs admitting they have “no idea what Facebook looks like” in front of a roomful of colleagues, and lays out options that range from General Assembly seminars to reverse mentoring programs that pair older executives with younger experts.

For my part, I talk about the importance of language, why they way you communicate about digital technologies is important and how — handled poorly — it can undermine your attempts to appear in the know. Clearly, talking the talk is no substitute for walking the walk, but when it’s time to talk the right words need to come out of your mouth.

From the article:

Some senior managers simply need vocabulary lessons. Greg Verdino, an executive coach in Huntington, N.Y., tells of one former client, a financial-services manager, who was seeking a new job but stumbled in interviews when speaking of his ability to use “socmed”—an abbreviation he had created for “social media.” Recruiters were befuddled, Mr. Verdino says, adding that he taught the client new lingo.

Then there’s the senior marketing executive who tried too hard to prove his digital savvy, name-dropping social media sites such as Dodgeball, a location-based networking service shuttered in 2009. “He looked clueless,” Mr. Verdino says.

Still other coaches have horror stories of clients who come in using the word “interwebs.”

Language and communication are definitely key challenges because they’re such an obvious indicator — but obviously those things are only part of the story (and only one of many things I discussed with the reporter). Every time a senior executive admits they have “no clue what Facebook looks like,” contends that “my customer isn’t on Twitter,” attests that social media or mobile is “for young people,” or — for that matter — turns to a college student to teach her the ins and outs of technology, their language and their actions generally betray a more fundamental leadership challenge: the lack of a digital mind set. In other words, when executives speak this way, it’s generally because they truly believethese things to be the case. And as the workplace becomes more digital, holding on to beliefs like these can result in career setbacks that can be difficult for a Gen X or Boomer executive to recover from. (Note: I’m writing mostly about Boomers and Xers here, but I’ve worked with Millennials who, stereotypes be damned, have had nearly as much trouble internalizing the business applications and implications of the very same technologies they’ve grown up with.)

All of this is compounded by a persistent belief that digital is someone else’s job. For instance, one of the more common general misconceptions I come across is that digital is a subset of marketing, and therefore not relevant to “me” for leaders outside the marketing function. In reality, marketing is a subset of digital. Digital transformation effects every area of a business. So while even a few years ago, it was almost OK to let marketing “own”digital (they were closest to the consumer, and the consumer was really driving all the change), today everyone needs to feel accountability for digital transformation. With each passing day, it becomes more important for leaders outside marketing to realize that they need to become more comfortable with not only technology but also digital culture, digital business and the digital workforce.

So what’s really going on here? I believe we are witnessing the widening of a different sort of digital divide. One that is defined not by demographics but by determination. To the extent that when you were born might be perceived as branding you a digital “have” or a digital “have not”, the closer truth is that executives are either digital “wills” or digital “will nots.” The tools and opportunities are there for the taking, no matter your age, gender, geography or income. What you do with those tools to create new opportunities is entirely up to you.

In this regard, Gen X executives are particularly interesting to me — not just because I amone but because, from a business standpoint, they’re part of a “swing” generation who learned the ropes from mostly-analog Boomer bosses but now find themselves managing more-digital Millennial teams. The large divide between the “wills” and “will nots” stands out in stark relief. While most Gen Xers didn’t “grow up” digital, the fact is that our careers developed alongside digital technologies in the 1990s and 2000s — some Xers embraced this early, and have become very savvy in terms of both digital technologies and what I would call 21st century work styles; others have allowed themselves to remain analog too long and now find themselves struggling to remain relevant in a digital workplace. And yet, no matter where you sit between these to digital poles, you need to recognize that youmust excel at managing digitally savvy Millennial workers today, and still be relevant come 2020 when Millennials will make up the majority of the workforce. Circling back to the point of the Wall Street Journal article, this is the real reason that any investment a company makes in fostering digital business skill sets and digital business mindsets will better equip its executives to lead well into the future and position the entire organization to transform and thrive in the face of disruption.

If learning digital skills is mandatory, adopting a digital mind set is even more so. Which side of the digital divide do you land on? What are you doing to make sure you’re not so #clueless anymore?

More from Wall Street Journal News Hub (video):

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If you are interested in learning how digital leadership coaching can help you gain the competencies you’ll need to lead your organization through its digital transformation, I’d love to talk. Get in touch.


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