Why improving the digital literacy of citizens is crucial for both the digital nation and the future of work

July 10, 2019 by

I thoroughly enjoy the conversations that DWG’s Digital Nations Group (DNG) gives us the space to pursue; they carve out a little time to pause for a moment and think big about what developments in digital mean for our wider world, and how that may, in turn, impact the workplaces that we’re all so involved in shaping. 

One of the ways in which we do this is by hosting an online DNG Hangout every quarter for our members. Previous topics have included accessibility in government digital services, how to encourage digital leadership, and the digital talent gap that exists across a number of sectors. For June, we turned our thoughts to the future of work, how the digital nation relates to the ways in which work is evolving, and ultimately the importance of digital literacy and access to us as both citizens and employees. 

What is “the digital nation”?

The easiest way to understand the digital nation is to consider the ways in which our institutions, our lives as citizens, and our activities within the geographical boundaries of our countries also have a digital footprint, and what that footprint enables. The biometrics that allow automated passport control, the renewing of your driving licence online, sensors within our streetlamps that support infrastructure management; all these elements and more create an online version of our nations that exists within code rather than solely in the physical. Beyond that still, it’s the way in which digital technologies support cross-boundary and cross-sector collaborations that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. 

How the digital nation relates to the future of work

We’re used to thinking about our workplaces in this way, as digital tools and mobile technology have enabled a way of working that would have been unheard of to our ancestors. But as digital workplace practitioners, we don’t often have the opportunity to expand our thinking beyond the physical and virtual offices. 

The digital nation does, however, provide the backdrop against which the future of work is unfolding. As we work in increasingly flexible and remote ways, our cities, towns and villages become our offices, with spaces and connectivity that support mobile working outside of the physical office ever more important. Geography simultaneously becomes both less and more important, as we build workforces and collaborate across borders, and yet become more invested in our local communities by virtue of mobile working. Meanwhile, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation that improve the efficiency and productivity of our organizations can in turn cause labour issues, creating employment and upskilling questions, which will likely need to be answered through collaboration between the private and public sectors. 

The shared challenge of digital literacy and access

This latter challenge hints at an underlying issue faced by both companies and states: the digital literacy and access of those being asked to populate and make use of online spaces. 

The importance of digital literacy is gaining credence in digital workplace circles, with organizations from the Scottish Government to Adobe all focusing resources on improving the capability and understanding of their people to make the best use of the digital tools and ways of working increasingly available to them. Similarly, it seems that supporting improved access to digital tools and services, globally as well as on the frontline, is rising up the priority list for organizations. 

Meanwhile, the “digital divide” is spoken of in the public realm, referring to a gulf between those who are able to access and use digital opportunities and services, versus those who aren’t. We’re increasingly seeing, for example, local governments working to address the digital divide, as well as not-for-profits such as Good Things Foundation. Some companies, such as Barclays, have worked to bridge both internal and external digital literacy, with its Digital Eagles programme crossing the company boundary from initially being focused on its employees to now supporting both customers and the wider population. The World Bank, in turn, tracks the issue globally by framing it in terms of digital dividends

Whose responsibility is it to support citizens’ and workers’ digital literacy and capabilities?

The discussion in our Hangout ultimately turned to the question of whose responsibility it is to support improved digital literacy, particularly as the boundaries between where people are working from become more fluid. 

To date, there appears to have been little joined-up thinking between different sectors seeking to improve the digital skills of their target demographics, with a multitude of frameworks and approaches being developed and deployed in isolation from one another. 

The education sector should, in theory, be preparing students to be both digital citizens and workers who are able to work digitally as the nature of work evolves. And while anecdotally progress seems to be being made, in parallel there are studies that suggest schools are lagging behind in integrating digital ways of learning, collaborating, tools and literacy into curricula. 

As a guest on our Hangout, L Vargas pointed to how a common framework for digital literacy could be developed and applied across both the public and private realms, taking in both technological know-how and supporting social behaviours and softer skills that support digital literacy. L also suggested that organizations are able to wield their soft power to get involved in local communities to support digital literacy programmes outside of their own borders. 

The overall benefits of a shared approach to digital literacy for the individual, the state and the organization could help reduce the digital divide both within the public and private realms, harnessing the capabilities, reach and expertise of multiple sectors. The challenges and opportunities facing us, simultaneously caused and addressed by developments within digital capabilities, require a workforce and citizenship that is able to make technology work for them, instead of feeling as if they’re at its mercy. A collaborative approach to digital literacy, which combines thinking about both the digital nation and the future of work, could be one way of achieving this. 

What next?

  • Start reading up on the different approaches and definitions of digital literacy.
  • Start a conversation about digital literacy within your organization, involving teams such as HR and Learning, and taking in both your current workforce and potential future workforce.
  • Find out whether there are any programmes locally within the regions in which your organization operates that are focused on improving citizens’ and students’ digital literacy, and consider whether this is something your organization can get involved in and support. 


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Categorised in: Digital literacy, Digital Nations, Digital workplace, Future of work

Shimrit Janes

Shimrit is Director of Knowledge for DWG, focused on curating knowledge on the digital workplace for its members and clients such as Adobe, The Coca-Cola Company, and Ubisoft. Shimrit has worked with Paul and DWG colleagues on various initiatives, such as Digital Nations Group, as well as co-hosting the 24-hour global digital experience DWG24. She has had a number of research papers published with DWG on topics such as organizational readiness and collaboration. Shimrit lives in London, where she crochets, enjoys video games and keeps more books than the space allows.

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