Shhh! There’s an elephant in the room

The Royal Society of Edinburgh this week published the results of its inquiry into digital participation. According to the report, Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation,

every individual, business and organisation must have basic information literacy and digital skills … Scotland must seize every opportunity to develop these skills through formal education, workplace learning, lifelong and community learning

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Note the inclusion of workplace learning in there. This is the HUGE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Workplaces in all sectors currently do not seem like fertile environments for fostering digital literacy, which is not about using Microsoft Office or finding your way round the organisation’s Sharepoint-based intranet. It’s about encouraging people to use web-based tools (social media) to find, share and use information.

As we have noted before in this blog

People who can seek new information, make sense of it, and share it with their colleagues, will be an asset to any work team. However, they need access to their learning networks while at work, and this is often a challenge. Reduce these barriers, and support PKM [Personal Knowledge Management] practices, and the organization will benefit.

So what is preventing this from happening? It may be the combination of somewhat technophobic senior executives and risk averse IT managers that results in locked down equipment and blocked access to the web-based tools that could radically transform workplace learning and knowledge management. Daily we hear dispiriting stories like these:

You can’t download Adobe Reader because Adobe’s website is a security risk.
You may not print from the council laptop on any printer other than the designated one in your workplace.

These restrictions, however well intentioned, suggest a culture that fosters dependency and fear rather than one that fosters confidence to develop and acquire digital literacy.

According to the report, 1.3m people in Scotland lack essential 21st-century digital literacy skills, which will need an urgent investment of at least £100m to remedy. If the 200,000 or so people who make up the social care workforce were encouraged at work to use the web and develop their skills, the number of digitally illiterate might fall to just over a million. And this would have a knock-on benefit.  The report describes a ‘network effect’ in which

localised digital activity by communities of individuals, businesses and voluntary organisations helps motivate others to become involved. The more people who have the opportunity to participate digitally, the greater the benefit is for all.

The workforce are also members of their local communities and most business have computers and reasonably good broadband. They just don’t encourage or allow their workers to make use of it to develop digital literacy.  It seems glaringly obvious that a digitally literate workforce has great potential to spread digital literacy through their community networks. And it wouldn’t cost £100 million.

Somewhat perversely the report suggests that we need to invest in digital skills so that ‘small and big businesses are able to access a workforce with the skills needed to exploit digital tools and opportunities’. Surely employers have a big role to play in creating that workforce?