The other day I was running a masterclass for a client who had asked me to help their younger staff understand the boundary between the professional and personal use of social media. The people attending were all recent graduates and were about 23 years old, on average. They had all been using a variety of social networks for several years and were highly competent in their usage of the various services.

However, they were less sure about the potential business uses of social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. We explored some of the possibilities for social media within their separate business areas. They quickly grasped what was feasible and could see the potential for using social media to generate leads, for instance.

But, one of the delegates than paused before saying, “This is all very well, and I can see the value, but our bosses won’t let us do any of this. They have said there is no way our business can possibly sell online. It’s all just a no-no as far as they are concerned.” 

We ended up discussing what they thought about their bosses and how the company was using the Internet. This firm is a modern, thriving organisation in the business-to-business arena, employing thousands of people worldwide. But it quickly became apparent that the newest recruits were way ahead of their managers regarding understanding the Internet and its potential.

I see this a lot; staff held back by managers who have little understanding of the Internet, or who are misled by false information. I still hear people saying “Google penalises duplicate content” (no it doesn’t) or “social media is for young people” (it’s for all ages) or “the web is great for business-to-consumer, but poor for business-to-business” (not true, the value of B2B sales online is a third more than B2C). The vast majority of managers appear to me, at least, to be digitally illiterate – they have little real understanding of the Internet.

This week, new research suggests that almost half of professionals in the business technology sector don’t think their leaders are digitally literate. If that’s the case in the technology sphere, it is probably going to be even higher in non-tech industries and professions. 

All you have to think about is how many people each month say to you things like “my email isn’t working properly”, or “I don’t really understand how to use LinkedIn” or “I’ve lost that file, can you send it to me again?”

These are everyday sayings. But they shouldn’t be. 

Translate those sayings into “pre-Internet” speak. They would be something like “the post has got to my desk, but I can’t find it”, or “I don’t really understand how to speak to people at business events” or “I’ve thrown away the paperwork you sent me, can you create it again?”

If that were the case, you’d have been out of your job pretty sharpish, deemed unable to cope.

Yet, nowadays, this kind of behaviour is seemingly acceptable. 

But think about it. That successful firm I was with the other day, is creating a barrier between senior managers and staff. The Internet-savvy juniors don’t respect their bosses; their loyalty to the firm is eroded too. Meanwhile, young “upstarts” are bound to be building competing companies that take advantage of modern digital technologies. Indeed, this is how disruption happens. When you look at how traditional businesses have been disrupted, the changes are rarely dramatic. Yahoo, for example, was just Yellow Pages online. Google Maps was only electronic AA Maps. Digital photography was just cameras without film.

None of these “disruptive” elements was anywhere near as much of a disruption as the invention of directories in the first place, or the production of the world’s first map, or the invention of the camera. Those were breakthroughs. The modern technological “leaps” are nothing of the sort; they are merely small steps. 

As I witnessed this week, many firms are not ready for those little moves forward. They don’t want to do online B2B selling (even though it works) when they are more familiar with old-fashioned ways and less used to the “new technology”. They then find excuses such as “social media is for young people” to cover up their lack of up-to-date knowledge or their fear of entering into the “unknown”. However, if they were to do so, they would realise they are just taking baby steps forward and not revolutionising their work.

We all need to ask ourselves are we providing excuses for lack of technical know-how? Lack of digital literacy inevitably leads to disruption of businesses, even though such disruptive moves are relatively small. Not being digitally literate as a business leader is, in effect, writing your own dismissal notice. Things like “my email isn’t working,” “I can’t find the file” and so on, are no longer acceptable if you want to survive the next phase of digital development. That’s like entering the workplace 40 years ago and complaining your pen had run out of ink.

So how can you prepare for 2018 and being digitally literate? Well, forget initiatives like the Microsoft Digital Literacy Curriculum, which appears to think everyone is about six years old. Ignore that massive pile of books you thought you’d read one day about using the Internet. And set-aside those online video lessons you had subscribed to that you were sure would help. Instead, ask the young people around you – junior staff in the office, or family or neighbours. They may not be perfect users of digital technologies themselves, but they’ll know what’s increasingly important and where you need to concentrate to remain digitally literate in the year ahead. 

Or your business could just sit back and hope that this Internet-thingy will settle down and won’t change very much in the next five years. Some hope. 


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