'Let’s face it, most organisations do not actively invest in the digital literacy of their teams'

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Many years ago I remember sitting in a classroom listening to a lecturer. I don't remember why I was there or what it was that I was meant to learn, the only thing I really remember is a cartoon that was flashed up on the screen. The cartoon had two pictures on it. On one side was a small boy jumping joyously off a low fence. On the other side was a grown man about to skydive from a plane. The caption said something like, "the principles are the same, but the techniques required for success are very different."

That cartoon has stuck with me (if you recognise this then please let me know so I can give appropriate due credit) and I see the application of the cartoon in many, many places.

One of the circumstances where I see this cartoon playing out is in the area of digital literacy. Consumerisation of IT has put a considerable amount of computing power in the hands of everyday people through an array of fantastic devices such as smartphones, tablets and highly portable laptops, which are loaded with easy to use applications. As people have gotten used to these devices in their personal life there has been a growing expectation that this can be replicated in the business / organisational world. The problem is that many organisations have not been able to respond to these challenges, resulting in growing dissatisfaction with corporate IT services and the emergence and growth of so called shadow IT.

[Related: No shortcuts to becoming a digital business]

While a lot of this call for change and simplification is warranted, (let's face it, IT teams need to be much more focused on providing high quality customer and user focused solutions), I wonder how realistic it is to expect that the technology services required to effectively operate a 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 person organisation, which provides thousands of products and services to maybe millions of customers around the world, can and should be the same as an application used to update your status on your favourite social network. Yes I get it, the principles are the same, but as the cartoon suggests perhaps the techniques required to be successful digitally in a complex corporate world are different than those required to be successful in our private lives.

As Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” So yes IT teams should continue to strive to make things as simple as possible but there comes a point where we have made our systems about as simple as we can and we need to look at other ways to improve organisational effectiveness. I reckon one of those is investing in growing the level of digital literacy within our teams.

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Yes, we run training courses when we release a new system but in many organisations, that’s it. Owen McCall

Let’s face it, most organisations do not actively invest in the digital literacy of their teams. Yes, we run training courses when we release a new system but in many organisations, that’s it. Normally these training courses run through a thoroughly detailed procedures manual (which is often hard to follow and out of date on day two that the system is live) and then let those attending the course practice with one or two simple contrived examples. These new users are then sent back to their day job to wait for the release of the system, which is usually weeks away and in some cases months away, and when the system goes live users are expected to perform flawlessly. Of course they don’t and often the blame for this is laid with the system - it is just too complex and hard to use.

One recent example of this that I have become aware of is an organisation who rates themselves as being pretty IT savvy. They went live with a major new global system which is used by the vast majority of their professional staff and is critical to the organisation's ability to consistently deliver quality services to their clients. In support of the implementation they rolled out a two-day training course four months before the system went live. No other training has been provided either to existing people, who may need a refresh, or to new starters. They do have a user manual that is available for people if they care to look for it. Sometime after go live, the organisation was considering throwing the system out as it is seen as being difficult to use. The organisational view is that it is the system that is at fault because they see themselves as technologically literate and quite capable of using any decent system.

I look at this and think well, maybe, but really what chance did it have to succeed? Back to our analogy. If skydiving was taught this way, what would it look like? Maybe a couple of sessions of the theory of skydiving where the new skydivers are taken through the skydiving manual, some “test jumps” in highly contrived circumstances, say from a podium onto a stack of high jump mats and a couple of practices packing your chute. Having successfully completed the course (although there probably isn’t actually a test), you are called back four months later asked to pack your own chute and jump solo. We then wonder why people die and decide the cause is that skydiving is too difficult and needs to be simpler so it is just like jumping off a low wall.

Well, maybe, but I for one don’t think success in a digital world will come from that approach.

[Related: ‘Disrupt digital businesses before you get disrupted!’]

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Owen McCall is an experienced management consultant and CIO, and a member of the editorial advisory board of CIO New Zealand. Reach him through owenmccall.com

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