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Why play is important for digital literacy

ClearBox Consulting > Adoption  > Why play is important for digital literacy
Light play.

Why play is important for digital literacy

We tend to talk about ‘adoption’ a lot in business technology. What I like then about the term ‘digital literacy’ is it puts the focus on enhancing people’s abilities for their own good, rather than learning something to benefit a system or organisation.

A sense of individual ownership is important for digital literacy, but when it comes to how to approach it, we seem to fall back on fairly traditional teaching and instruction models. My feeling is we learn a lot about technology by playing with it, not going through step by step. Play in this context doesn’t mean gamification, rather it’s trying things out with dummy data and doing some ‘what if’ experimentation. It’s how we make sense of something new in a way that gives us more flexible principles to apply.

Time for experimentation

It’s a myth that millennials are somehow more skilled because they are ‘digital natives‘. No Baby Boomer claims to be an ‘automobile native’ because they never knew a time without a car. However, before adulthood, we tend to have more time to experiment. I think it was this opportunity to explore digital devices that created the sense that millennials had a deeper understanding than generations before them.

The gotcha is the technology keeps changing, and we all need to keep on experimenting. Those fine-tuned MySpace skills are starting to look outmoded.

What is helpful is the ability to cross-over skills from our personal lives (where we have more scope to play) into the workplace. If you ask the average office worker to ‘upload a dozen digital assets into the cloud and add metadata’ many would say they don’t know how. Yet they probably taught themselves to add photos to Dropbox or iCloud and sort them into albums — these are the same skills.

One thing I’m hearing repeatedly from companies that have moved from Yammer to Workplace by Facebook is how much quicker the adoption has been. A factor in this is surely the level of familiarity many people already have with the Facebook interface and how much of that knowledge carries over. More subtly, they have also learned what the value proposition is, so need less persuasion: it’s a tool to stay connected with people around me.

Play allows for mistakes

One of the things about role-play and simulations is they allow you to make mistakes without consequences. In ‘This is Going to Hurt‘, for example, a junior doctor describes his anxiety that he would have to sew up wounds without ever actually being taught. So he spent the night practising incisions on oranges before he let himself loose on patients.

We also want the safety of making mistakes in private. One of the things that inhibits the late majority from joining enterprise social networks (ESN) is that by the time they want to participate, the room is already full of onlookers. The early-adopters got to learn the etiquette when it was quiet, and if they posted a silly cat picture during the pilot phase it didn’t really matter. But once an ESN has taken off, there’s no safe place to play anymore. For this reason, having non-business groups, even ones for telling jokes or talking about sports, can be valid as a training space.

In my intranet work, we often encounter people who have been asked to publish on a content management system and find the prospect quite intimidating. They aren’t technically minded, and fear the whole company will see if they break something. A good tip, then, is to give them access to a sandpit site that only other publishers have access to. Tell them to experiment as much as they like and reassure them that at the end of the week the site will be scrubbed clean and re-set.

Play encourages reflection

Another element to play is reflection. Angry Birds cultivated this really well: every so often you’d hit a round where your tactics stopped working and you’d have to try something completely different until you learned a new principle.

At work we do this sometimes too when you get so far creating a diagram in PowerPoint but you just can’t get it to look right. This is when you explore the ribbon or search the net to find a different approach. The problem with many digital workplace tools though is people don’t reach a full impasse, they just plod on being inefficient. Even after showing somebody how to use heading styles and section numbering in Word, I still got the response of “actually, I’m happy going through each heading and formatting it, I know how that works”.

Make space to be inefficient

I regret never learning to touch-type. I got so fast with four-finger typing that the impact of slowing down enough to re-learn proper typing has always been too much.

This is often the case for busy people asked to learn new IT skills, so we need to give them time and incentive to adapt in the short-term to benefit in the long-term. For example, somebody might patiently type each day of the month in an Excel column, because at that moment it’s quicker than learning how to automate it. Even though there would be payback by the third time they use that skill. It’s only when we take people away from the pressure of a deadline that they can try something new.

If a whole country can do it, so can you

The government of Singapore launched its SkillsFuture programme for all citizens in 2016. It lets them take time out of work to learn digital skills. By the end of 2017, 285,000 Singaporeans had benefitted from the $3,600 training credit on offer, and 4,600 had participated in the ‘SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace’ programme.

Of course, not all of the SkillsFuture programme is about learning through play, but giving people the space and sense of ownership of their digital literacy are important first steps. Classroom training is out of fashion because it takes people away from their desk — but sometimes that is precisely what we need to do.

This article was first published over at CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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