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The Thorny Issue of Digital Literacy

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, Arthur C Clarke


Digital literacy, to use the (unfortunately) conventional term, is something that every business should be giving serious thought to. But what does it really mean and what are the issues?



When cloud computing first appeared, many business leaders were reluctant to let go of their on-premises servers, because they could physically see them – there was a tangible asset that they could look at, and it had blinking lights and everything.


But in practical terms the physical aspect of a computer of any kind is the least important aspect. A digital asset is the ultimate intangible and is represented in software, not the hardware - or even the location of the hardware - that enables it.


Software, including the kind that makes our laptops and smartphones operate, can’t be seen or touched. When movies want to portray software, they almost always show scrolling lines of code, or shimmering symbols as in The Matrix. In popular culture, there are Neos - tech wizards who can somehow interpret those symbols just by looking at them, but in reality, no such people exist.


The real tech wizard has a singular ability to clearly envisage something that cannot be seen. As Fred Brooks wrote of software in 1975, the developer “works from pure thought-stuff” and “few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand complex structures”.


In the same way that accountants have a deft ability to process numbers, capable digital technologists have a finely tuned ability to envisage complex processes in their heads and make decisions about how to make those processes work or improve them.


The ability to do this, sometimes called by another ungainly phrase “computational thinking” is really the key to digital literacy. That is why the school curriculum is moving towards teaching these concepts, but as a society we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.


The education system coined the terms “Digital Immigrant” and “Digital Native” to illustrate the difference between a person who grew up in pre-digital times (the Immigrant) and the Native who has never known a non-digital world. The Native speaks fluent digital, while the Immigrant will always have a noticeable accent no matter how competent they become. The irony of this metaphor is that many of the people working in the NZ tech industry today are actual immigrants.


Most businesses do not have a means by which they can measure and manage this key trait, and have resorted to easily understood proxies, such as the ability to use Excel or Xero or any one of thousands of other products. Business leaders also tend to stick with tech people that they know and trust, which generally comes down to whether they can understand what the tech people are talking about.


However, the ability to use a particular product does not make you digitally literate in general, it only makes you literate in that particular product. Focussing on specifics in this way distorts the market for both trainer and learner. The most successful tech training companies have responded by teaching the specific product skills that businesses have asked for.


This has created a situation where real digital agility is inhibited by available skills – or the lack of them. Being “good with technology” or easy to communicate with does not always translate into real business value. Often the best tech people can be the hardest for the C-level to communicate with.


Sometimes a translator is required to bridge the gap between how the business leader articulates what they want to do and what the technology is capable of. That’s one of the key benefits a CIO brings to your team.


In the future, there may be less of a requirement for this skill, but right now it’s essential.


Ray Delany is the Founder of CIO Studio and has been doing this for a while. Why not ask for a no-obligation discussion to help plan your change?

 

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