How Does An Increase In Digital Literacy Affect The IT Industry?

April 10, 2024  |  Mark Hillary

What kind of digital literacy will the general public need in future? I find this to be a really interesting question and although it may not seem to be immediately a focus of the IT industry. There is a large knock-on effect when you think about the level of understanding that everyone should have around IT and technology.

Think of it like this. We take basic literacy almost for granted now. There are very few countries that tolerate basic illiteracy — the inability to even read and write.

However, the ability to perform basic mathematics is seen as completely different. In many highly developed countries, it can be quite normal to joke about how poor you are with mathematics, yet nobody would ever say ‘I can’t even read this menu because I’m illiterate!’

So literacy comes in many different forms.

Over the past 30 years, we have seen the development of many forms of digital literacy. A young graduate at a job interview today is unlikely to be asked if they can use email messaging platforms, social media, and basic tools like spreadsheets — this is all assumed because schoolchildren now use all these tools.

But this generational digital literacy has created problems between children and their parents. A recent study in the UK found that even where families can afford to buy computer equipment for their home, around half of the adults don’t understand how to use it. This means that the children can do almost anything they want to do online without any supervision.

Corporate leaders are also finding that a technology-led innovative approach to social sustainability can improve their Environment, Social, and corporate Governance (ESG) ranking. ESG explores various areas of how well a company is run and how it pays attention to the environment and community around it.

ESG sounds like a fluffy add-on — one of those warm initiatives that just sounds nice on a corporate report — but it is becoming a very serious issue. When companies seek investment, they now need to demonstrate ESG credentials. When companies are looking for the best employees, they can attract the best people by proving they have a strong ESG message. When customers want to feel good about the companies they buy from, many are now asking Google about the ESG status of the brands they like. ESG does actually matter.

This is just another development in the ongoing journey for digital literacy. The general public understands social media, but now they are also finding that they can learn a lot more about the companies they are buying from just by Googling the name of the business.

The next steps in this journey will be in coding and artificial intelligence (AI). Many jobs involve moving information around and manipulating it in some way. Lawyers, tax advisers, and real estate agents all need to use large amounts of information to perform their job.

Traditionally, IT systems would help these people in their jobs, but it is becoming more common for companies to expect new employees to have some basic skills that allow them to search and manipulate data. For example, if a real estate agent wants to filter property data in a city in a way that is difficult to perform using their existing software, then they could just build a query and directly go to the data.

Increasingly, these professionals will use AI-powered digital assistants to do much of this work, but the direction is clear — professional employees in many jobs that are not in the IT industry will need some IT skills.

The idea of digital literacy has often been restricted to the idea that coding is important, or the ability to use common business applications. I think we are moving into an environment where the ability to have more detailed digital skills is becoming like the ability to read half a century ago.

In the 1970s, nobody would ask about your email or social media skills, they didn’t exist at the time, but it would be hard to get through a job interview without the ability to read. This is where we are going with more digital skills today. A real estate agent may not think that their ability to query a database is a skill that is needed today, but it certainly will be tomorrow.

What does this mean for companies in the IT industry, though?

An increase in digital literacy does not mean that the general public will all be coding and available for jobs working in IT. This is easy to understand. Look around today. Everyone can use Instagram and TikTok, but that doesn’t mean they understand digital technology.

However, the increase in digital literacy requirements raises the bar for the services that all companies in all industries must provide to their customers. More services will be digitally-enabled. So, opportunities are being created for companies to offer more information-rich services to their customers.

Retailers need to create recommendations and offers that are designed for an individual customer. Energy companies need to advise on how to reduce power consumption based on the behavior of an individual customer. Logistics companies need to plan routes more effectively because they can’t afford to waste time in traffic or visiting customers that are not at home.

Across almost every business today, there are new demands for information and services arising from a greater general sense of digital literacy. As the public becomes more skilled at searching for information, this creates the opportunity to create new types of service.

This is where the IT industry will benefit. Across every industry, there is the need to advise on innovation and new services that will address how the general public now has this greater digital literacy. It is a social challenge for educators to ensure that people have the skills they need for employment, but companies also need to respond to the increased demands from smarter and more knowledgeable consumers.

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