THE BLOG
02/11/2013 12:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

Digital Citizenship: Businesses Can Learn From K-12 Educators

As readers of this blog know, businesses must become more social to thrive and their employees must be mobile, social and hyper-connected. As Daniel Pink says, we're all sales people. Social media-based marketing metrics, such as share of conversations (percentage of time your brand shows up in online conversations) are becoming important in predicting business success. Greater on-line interaction invariably leads to more and better customer and prospect engagement.

The good news is that employees want to be social and participate. The number of smart phones, tablets, social media accounts, email addresses, YouTube videos, and Tweets are growing explosively. Business management should be embracing this desire on the part of their employees for full social participation. But instead, there is wide-spread paralysis caused by justifiable fears of wasted productivity, cyber bullying in the workplace, inappropriate browsing, and loss of proprietary information. Simply creating bloated and complex social media policies has proven more of a hindrance than a solution to effective social engagement. Some of these social media policies are not even lawful.

Often employees don't understand the impact that their digital footprint can have on their company. A post on Facebook or Twitter can be detrimental; confidential data can be exposed on an iPhone; plagiarism of copyrighted material can bring litigation; the list goes on. And as more employees bring their personal mobile devices into the workplace (BYOD), the stakes are going up. When an Applebee's server posted an image on Reddit, she was clearly not thinking about the ultimate impact of her digital footprint.

So how can businesses that have invested in finding and recruiting the most talented social people available unleash their employees to engage customers and build a vivid social presence for the company? This is where business needs to take a cue from K-12 educators.

Educators have faced a challenge similar to businesses regarding the use of technology and the Internet. Unfettered student access can bring major benefits by dramatically enhancing learning and creativity. But, it comes at the risk of compromised privacy, copyright infringement, cyber bullying, plagiarism, and exposure to inappropriate content. The concept of Digital Citizenship was created to address this situation.

Digital Citizenship is more about the concepts than the rules. Mike Ribble's Digital Citizenship in Schools outlines nine core elements that create a culture of good digital citizens. From the correct use of social media, etiquette, digital commerce, and dealing with cyber bullying and plagiarism, the program teaches students how to behave on the network and interact with others. Digital Citizenship focuses on the positive aspects of the creative process and is not enforcement-based.

Ribble introduces the concept of a Digital Driver's License (DDL) in his book. The Digital Learning Design Lab at the University of Kentucky has built a DDL for students and teachers, as a teaching and learning tool. The point is for the students to learn vital participation skills before being given the keys to the car and taking the road. It's not about limiting or putting blockades up or making sure everyone drives the same way. Applied in a business context, it can give everyone the super powers they need to participate and interact at an accelerated rate and to show off their talents to make the company vision shine.

Has the Digital Citizenship concept worked? Studies have indeed shown that education is far better than punishment at influencing behavior. A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism found that a 15-minute Web-based tutorial reduced plagiarism by as much as 65%. Data from another experiment indicated a significant improvement in students' normative behavior of technology use when exposed to the Digital Citizenship curriculum.

There's no reason the same concepts wouldn't work for business. HR departments routinely make employees sign off on sexual harassment programs, international fair trade rules, etc., but today there is little or no education or programs to ensure employees understand how to act and participate properly in the digital age. Corporations need to take a lead from K-12 education, embrace the success of the Digital Citizenship program, and implement their own corporate digital citizenship programs to teach and enforce the correct use of technology.

Four quick steps to make a Digital Citizenship business change:

Step 1: Remove the fear. Start a Digital Citizenship campaign. Promote and encourage the use of personal social media networks, apps, and devices. It is no longer taboo to visit YouTube or Tweet during work time.

Step 2: Teach the skills. Explain piracy. Show safe ways to purchase online. Demonstrate how to upload images without including the EXIF or geo-location data.

Step 3: Highlight the positive outcomes from employees' personal participation. Remove the concept of personal versus professional use of our digital footprint and substitute appropriate versus inappropriate use. The old model simply doesn't fit any more. Wake up business leaders.

Step 4: If something negative happens, don't jump to create a new policy or block a website. Make a decision based on the person's action, not about the technology. Never look for a technology solution for a non-technology problem.

This post was co-authored by Marty J. Park (Twitter: @martypark) and Robert Nilson (Twitter: @enterabob)