Your Digital Literacy Quick Study Guide

By

John Tarnoff

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Overcome any lingering insecurities about your digital literacy. Build your confidence and engage seamlessly in the digital workplace by understanding these key concepts and paradigms.

Reading Time: 12 Minutes

For many workers over 50, and especially over 60, even if you’ve been using computers for the last 30 years, there may be some things about tech you just don’t get. Plus, you’re walking into meetings with younger colleagues who often bring age bias and condescension with them about your digital literacy and proficiency. This article is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. But it is intended as an encouraging demystification to fill in some of the gaps.

Old-school companies across the planet are actively engaged in the process of “digital transformation.” Consulting companies like McKinsey and others spend a lot of their time helping these companies update not only the technologies they use, but the mindsets needed to anticipate future change, and to understand what works and is appropriate for their particular situation.

Your digital literacy should mirror this process on a personal level, especially if you’re in a career transition. It will help you become more confident and more productive, and will enhance your credibility and authority in your work.

The Myth of the Digital Native

For millennials and gen-z, playing video games and creating Instagram Stories doesn’t mean that they understand digital technology, or how to use it to get things done in the business world. I’m regularly struck by how little my graduate students know about technology tools beyond Google Docs, basic Excel, and PowerPoint. Project management? Digital note-taking? Effective team collaboration? They often have a lot to learn. But they are quick studies, able to pick things up quickly because they do understand some of the basic ideas underlying our current technology.

It’s mostly a matter of confidence. It’s not something that is inherent in one generation vs. another. Like Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, sometimes you just need to think you can to know you can.

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You Are a Digital Founder

If you’re over 50, you are a digital founder. You are a member of the generations that created all this stuff that we now all take for granted. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos – all boomers. Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Susan Wojicki, Larry Page – all gen-x.

The underlying principals that underpin digital technology are really very common-sense. There is no reason for you to have any problem learning any new app or platform that gets thrown your way at work. So stop referring to yourself plaintively as a “digital immigrant.”

Ditch Your AOL Address

Yes, it matters. Using an AOL email address is a sure sign that you are behind the times. It means you have not kept up with digital developments. Imagine showing up at the office in a 1970s “leisure suit,” or continuing to wear your “Members Only” brand windbreaker from 1983. That’s the eye-rolling response that your “aol.com” domain will elicit today. Holding on to AOL says that you know things have changed, but you just can’t be bothered to adapt. Why are you stubbornly sticking to the way things were twenty (thirty?) years ago? Spend the five minutes and get a Gmail address, for crying out loud!

Understanding Your Software Ecosystem

You’re either a Mac user or a Windows user. You have either an iPhone or an Android phone. And you use those devices to spend most of your time in The Cloud. Nothing you don’t already know, right?

But if you’re feeling overloaded with how all of your devices and operating systems interact, spend some time reviewing what you’re currently using and why. You may be scattered all over the place with a Windows laptop for work, and a Mac at home. And maybe you’re struggling to get your Google Play music or Amazon music account to work with your Apple TV or your legacy iTunes account. Worse, you may have an Amazon Echo device in the kitchen, and a Google Home device in the den.

Consider streamlining your software ecosystem and shifting your investment to the one that best accommodates all of your needs. If your workplace is Google-centric, you might ditch some of your Apple or Microsoft infrastructure. This could include doing your work in Docs, Sheets, and Slides vs Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Similarly, maybe everyone in your family prefers Apple, and you’re the only Windows holdout. You might consider moving over so that everyone can more easily share and work on the same system.

I’m not saying you should restrict yourself to one software ecosystem. But being primarily invested in one of them will make your life a lot easier.

Understand Your UI’s

When the first Macintosh came out in 1984, its user interface (“UI”) forever established the system of menus and clicks that has become second-nature to all of us. But software programs used to come with thick user manuals to explain how to use them. We don’t need these manuals anymore because we all understand the basics of UI design, and how they function. This includes you.

The next time someone asks you to demo some new web application, don’t recoil in fear that you won’t be able to figure it out. Trust that there’s a logical layout and workflow you can follow to figure out how it works. Like exploring the office on your first day at a new job, exploring a new application is just another exercise in spatial orientation. You’ll figure out where to go and what to click (or whom to ask) in order to get something done.

Remember that software is a competitive business, and customers don’t have time to learn new programs. So developers bend over backwards making their tools accessible, intuitive, and fun to learn. Their business success depends on you enjoying the process of using their product. Stop feeling intimidated, like you’re too dumb to join some club where everyone loves calculus.

Pro Tip: Search YouTube tutorials. This actually applies to everything in this article, and everything you’re looking to do across your entire life. There’s someone on YouTube who has recorded a video to teach you pretty much anything you need to know.

Understand Your Platforms

A platform is not a program or an app. A platform is a dedicated software structure in the Cloud. It enables you to do your business, collaborate with others, or make digital stuff. Some examples of platforms are:

  • CRMs (customer relationship management platforms) like Salesforce or Pipedrive. They give companies and individuals the tools to manage their customer transactions and interactions.
  • Website development platforms like WordPress, Wix or Squarespace, that make creating websites easy, visually intuitive and relatively cheap.
  • Social networks like Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. They act as community forums and communication hubs for individuals and groups to create and share media and information.
  • Project and Task managers like Asana, ClickUp, Todoist (and so many others). These let you break down your work deliverables, assign tasks, and track progress.

Google, the search engine, is the granddaddy of all platforms. It’s really an online advertising platform that sells a wide variety of advertising and statistical tools to advertisers. And yes, is the poster child for surveillance capitalism. But that’s another story.

Again, platforms are all competing with one another for your attention and your dollar. Many of them overlap. Don’t be afraid to do some sampling and experimenting to find the one that meets your needs.

Use Synchronous AND Asynchronous Communications

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Do you hate to text? Are you one of those boomers who jokes about how millennials would rather text than use the phone?

Think beyond generational differences and your own bias about how things “should” work. Instead, think about what communication mode is appropriate to what and how you need to communicate. It’s not an either/or proposition.

Telephones are synchronous. They’re designed to be “live” with communication taking place in real time in the moment.

Letters are asynchronous. You write and send your letter and wait for the other person to write you back. Today, that’s where email and text messaging come in.

Each mode has its uses. The problem with both older and younger communicators today is that they don’t know when to use each mode.

The ubiquity of email suggests that most communication can be done asynchronously. With so much communication going on, and the amount of work we’re supposed to handle, email is the way we go “on the record.” Then it lets us file, track, and retrieve that correspondence.

But email is a lousy way to make group decisions or poll a group of collaborators. To make decisions, work through a specific obstacle, or solve a specific problem, just pick up the phone. Actually talking to someone (or everyone) directly is often the best way to arrive at the solution.

As an older worker, don’t dismiss the convenience of text messaging. It can be the direct, informal way to cut through unnecessary conversation – asynchronously.

Don’t be afraid to insist on switching to email when you want a record of the exchange, or need to use more expressive language.

Don’t avoid dedicated messaging channel platforms like Slack or Teams to stay abreast of group conversations on specific topics. They’re a handy way of using asynchronous communication to stay up to date in real time.

And don’t feel like you’re old or out of date if you want to pin someone down by calling them on the phone. It’s OK to insist that they call you to finalize a deal or unravel a problem.

Collect Information, Take Notes

You’ve heard the acronym “TMI” (too much information). Well, all that information is not going away. Disruption and change require us to keep learning. We need to stay current, learn new things, and research new developments. We also need to have instant access to the mountain of information we’re tracking and file it so it’s retrievable and usable.

Where and how do we keep track of all that information without making ourselves crazy?

I hope you are already using a digital note-taking app like Evernote or One Note to collect, store and retrieve that information. If not, then this is the one recommendation on this list that I insist you implement right away. If you’re not using a note-taker, you are dampening your effectiveness at work by (ballpark guesstimate) at least 20%.

Note-takers come in many flavors. Some like the two flagship apps mentioned above, feature broad functionality and let you clip webpages, scan documents and business cards. They can even recognize text in photos. All that of course is in addition to letting you type (or dictate) notes and reminders. Other apps capture ideas on digital post-it notes. Others work like hierarchical bullet-point outliners. Whichever one you choose as the right one for you, you will quickly marvel at how it lets you get all of your ideas out of your head. They are now living in the Cloud and accessible on all of your devices. So you’re never without your notes database at your side. You can always make a revision, add a new idea, or follow up on a new research lead.

Don’t Forget Your Browser

And don’t forget your web browser bookmarks. If you need to store and retrieve information from the web to use while you’re working in your browser, consider creating folders to categorize pages you work with frequently. Think client homepages, web services login pages, newspaper front pages, keyboard shortcuts guides for your most-used web apps…. You get the idea.

Finally, consider using a digitally-oriented filing protocol across all of your platforms, devices, and screens. Setting a common hierarchy and directory structure across all of your systems will make it easier to know where to put stuff, and then were to retrieve it. One such system I recommend is the PARA Method developed by productivity writer and speaker Tiago Forte. He also teaches an online course on using note-taking tools called “Building a Second Brain.”

Use Collaboration Tools

It used to be that you reported to a manager and used to get together for staff meetings with your peers. Then you would go and do your work and deliver it to your manager. So the way you collaborated was pretty much with that one person.

Today, it’s all about the team. As an older worker, this may have been an adjustment you’re still getting used to if you’re in a company that has flattened its hierarchy. Responsibility has now been distributed to collaborative teams, where the manager is more of a coach. They’re supervising the group as a whole, and not as focused on the one-on-one style of management that you may have grown up with. This work mode borrows a lot from software development, where everyone is working in coordination and in parallel towards a defined goal and/or deadline.

Embrace Project Management Software

To support this methodology, collaborative project management software (see Platforms above) has emerged to help manage this process. It can give everyone on the team the ability to see who’s doing what, and where they stand in the overall progress to completion. At any given moment, they can track and support one another in delivering effectively and on time. Some project management platforms can actually help managers balance the assignment load. They can shift tasks from workers who are dealing with heavier loads to workers who have been able to complete tasks early or otherwise free up their bandwidth.

Your ability to roll with this new way of working and dive into collaboration in this new way will really raise the level of your effectiveness. See my LinkedIn Learning course, “Connecting With Your Millennial Manager” for more thoughts on how to get up to speed with this and other aspects of work in today’s digital business culture.

Digital Literacy and Decades of Experience

Just imagine the power of adding enhanced digital literacy to your decades of business experience. First, you will be able to better keep up with the faster, more coordinated workflows that drive workgroups and deadlines. But your experience will give you the perspective that younger workers don’t have and the context of why, say, one task is more important than another, or why something needs to be done in a certain order.

What pops out to you from this rundown of digital literacy opportunities? What area are you going to research or jump into next?

Share in the comments and let me know how and why you want to up-level your digital skills.


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