This article from Christoph Rauhut investigates what digital competence means in the corporate practice of today. 


Digital competence is essential in a global and digital world that is constantly changing. Companies often ask themselves how they can convey all of the digital skills required to their employees so that they can implement them quickly and efficiently in their day-to-day work. 

By developing digital competence, companies pursue far-reaching goals that are relevant to their competitive strength and are also aimed at being attractive as an employer. Cost savings and profit maximization also play an important role here. 

Most companies do not start with the “how” of this, but with the “which.” Which skills are essential for keeping up with the competition? Only then does the question arise as to how they can be developed. When defining the range of digital skills that are suitable for your company, it’s important to align them with your corporate and digital strategies. 

Digital skills differ depending on the sector, industry, and company in question. Companies are often faced with the challenge of having to describe a path that allows them to find out which digital skills are the right ones for them first and then, in the next step, how to convey them to their employees. 

This article describes a model for digital skills acquisition moving from no digital competence to digital competence and deals specifically with the social intranet as a tool for acquiring digital competence in a company and for the individual employee. It provides practical examples of the implementation and the general conditions for use. 

Digital Competence – the term and its meaning 

The Conceptual Interpretation of Digital Competence

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the concept of “competence” as expertise or the ability to possess it. People as individuals and, as a result, the entire organization should and must develop competence in various areas. Accordingly, the employee should have a certain “expertise” in specific topics. On the one hand, these are competencies in one’s own profession. The welder must be able to weld, the automaker must be able to manufacture automobiles, and the computer scientist must be able to program code. However, far more skills exist for these examples here for the individual than the mere “ability” to do one thing. 

To remain competitive, a company’s employees need to have other interdisciplinary skills as well. They should be familiar with the organization in their own company. The culture of the company also plays a major role here. However, it’s not possible to measure every skill in the company environment. Often social skills (or soft skills) are involved that make an employee particularly valuable for an organization outside of their professional skill set. 

What difference do they make? Digital skills? In times of increasing digitalization, it’s important to develop technical skills in handling certain devices, media, and tools, and to be able to use them profitably on behalf of the company in the digital world. This is one side of the coin. The employee can use a system or a tool. Beyond this, companies have to think in another direction as well. Globalization has made it necessary in most professions to communicate asynchronously, spatially separated, and above all digitally. This usually takes place with the support of suitable tools, for instance, social intranets such as Microsoft SharePoint, Teams, Atlassian Confluence, or messenger systems like Webex, etc. However, an employee who can communicate well face to face may not have the necessary skills in the digital world. A simple example of this is meetings. 

If an employee in the real world is late for a meeting, they knock politely, enter the room, apologize, and sit down. Every person there has noticed their presence. In a digital room, this is not so easy. Most of the time someone is already talking, the person enters the “room” unnoticed and because of this, it’s much more difficult to make yourself known. The respective employee has to learn how to deal with this situation in the best possible way. The term “netiquette” has become common here. Accordingly, digital skills in a company have a broad range of facets that need to be specifically fostered. 

Digital Skills are of essential importance for companies

The topic of “digitalization” has become an integral part of most industries these days. Nevertheless, uncertainties and problems in understanding the term are still rife. According to the D21 initiative from the German Federal Government that has been examining the status of digitalization in Germany since 2013, Germans achieved just 55 out of a possible 100 points on the subject of “digital skills” in the years 2018/2019. In terms of user behavior and openness to digitalization, only 39 and 52 points respectively, however. This means there’s a lot of room for improvement. This is also reflected at the company level. Many people are still overwhelmed by the topic of digitalization.

Research has shown, however, how important this topic is for companies in various sectors and industries. In particular, to remain on a par with the competition on a national and international level, companies and individual employees need to understand and implement digital skills in their company. 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for German companies as to which digital skills these are, however. There are certainly skills that exist that are comprehensive and can be applied to several or even all industries (e.g. the use of modern communication and collaboration tools), but individual skills always play an equally important role as well. A company must therefore be able to answer the following questions: 

  1. Which digital skills are essential in my market environment or which digital skills allow me to get ahead of my competitors? 
  2. How do I anchor these skills in our workforce? 
  3. Which digital skills do I have to offer as an employer to be/remain attractive to job seekers? 

To remain competitive, companies need to have or find an answer to these questions and firmly anchor their answers in their (digital) corporate strategy. Before answering these two questions, however, we need to familiarize ourselves with the phases companies and people go through when building digital skills. 

The Path to Building Digital Skills

Before we show the phases in which digital skills are determined and then anchored, it’s important to understand how companies and therefore people acquire skills and which path they usually take to acquire them (see Figure 1). 

For a lack of digital skills, there are two starting points: the skill that is lacking is either conscious or unconscious. This means that the company or the employee either knows or does not know about the digital skill, but cannot, in any case, implement or use it. When they are in this “unconscious state,” people generally feel comfortable. They’re happy or satisfied. They’re not aware of what they don’t know. Uncertainty only arises when they become aware of their lack of skill (“I should understand this system/topic. But I don’t”). Such behavior is human. The person/company realizes that they need to know something to remain competitive or suitable for their job. At this point, the company or employee is aware of the lack of skill. Now a solution or a way has to be found as to how it can be converted into a skill. Companies must have an answer at this point. How can I manage to convey the necessary skills to my employees and ultimately anchor them into the company landscape? Nothing is more dangerous than leaving employees to confront uncertainty alone. 

Fig. 1: The path to acquiring an unconscious digital skill.

The company should take steps as soon as possible to shift the employee from having a conscious lack of digital skills towards having a conscious digital skill (“I’m starting to understand the system/topic and it’s not that difficult”) and ultimately to having an unconscious digital skill (“I use the system/apply myself to the topic without thinking about it”). Primarily, this creates a feeling of trust and safety among the workforce.

A critical thing to keep in mind is when the perceived state that the management has of its employees’ digital skills differs from that of the employees themselves. The introduction of a new program to increase the level of collaboration can be mentioned here as an example. The company as a whole has recognized the added value that this tool provides: it was introduced, but did not receive the proper support. Management believes that the tool supports the employee in performing their daily work and hence generates added value (status: trust or safety). In fact, the employee did not receive any support during the introduction stage and feels insecure about when and how to use the tool and, above all, what for. Usually, these tools are thrown overboard after a short while and the tool is given the blame. The real problem, however, was caused by other factors that were not taken into account during the introduction phase. 

What’s important is that the company as an entity should be either one step ahead of the employee or at least on the same level. The best example of this is the use of private tools like Facebook or WhatsApp for internal company use. Modern employees see the advantages of these systems in the form of quick and uncomplicated collaboration. However, this is problematic from the point of view of data protection. Instead of “demonizing” systems like WhatsApp, however, companies should be asking themselves the question of why their employees have developed digital skills at precisely this point and how these can be used to drive progress in their own company (see “Fast Track” in the following chapter). 

In summary, it’s important for companies to expose an unconscious lack of digital skills and, in the best case, convert it into unconscious digital skills. The following section uses a four-phase model to show you how to find and anchor digital skills in your company. 

Three phases and a Fast Track on the path to anchoring digital competence in your organization 

Based on the model for building unconscious digital skills, three phases can be identified for analyzing and anchoring digital skills in your organization (see Fig. 2): 

Fig. 2: Phases on the path toward anchoring digital skills. 

Phase 1: Analysis and Awareness Building

Before you can start talking about developing digital skills, it’s first important to understand where digital skills are required in your organization. In ideal terms, these are derived from the company’s digital strategy and take a comprehensive view of the market: what do our customers/suppliers need? What does the competition have on board? What would help our employees to perform their day-to-day work more efficiently? However, a critical examination of digital trends is also required. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to digital trends. For example, if a company’s customers are not on Facebook, it’s not worth the effort to establish a digital presence on this channel. On the other hand, digital skills exist that have proven to be helpful across all industries, such as introducing a digital communications and collaboration solution (or social intranet). Soft factors, in particular, such as the communication behavior already mentioned above, play a major role in these solutions. When defining their digital skills, companies should think multidimensionally, not only in terms of tools (hard skills) but also soft factors. 

It is important to understand where you are in relation to this and where skills gaps exist (gap analysis). At this point, companies stage workshops, as well as surveys of employees/managers or digital natives. This can help to bring light into the darkness. As a part of this, it’s important to understand that the company may have employees who have already mastered the desired digital skill. It is mandatory that this mastery is used when analyzing the current situation because these employees can be used as multipliers in the second step to introduce colleagues to the skill in more detail. Examples of the contents of the individual phases are shown in Figure 3. 

At the end of this phase, the company knows in what direction its digital compass is pointing and where it wants to go. Ideally, concrete goals should also be defined at this point in addition to a strategy. This first step is very important for showing the lack of digital skills, even if it does remove the company from its comfort zone (satisfaction) and transports it to a place of insecurity. 

Phase 2: Implementation and Empowerment

In Phase 1, the company becomes aware of its lack of digital skills. Phase 2 is all about defining a way to transform this lack into real skills. Various approaches need to be worked out for this (keyword: change management). This topic is comprehensive, multi-layered, and very complex, which is why it’s only possible to touch on it here. Companies are most likely to notice when change management has not been performed or not been performed correctly, for example, when technology is not being used or is not being used in the company’s interest. The following questions, among others, should be answered here: 

  • What is the attitude of our employees toward these digital skills? Do fears play a role? 
  • What benefits do digital skills bring the company and the employee? 
  • What tools can we give employees so that they can best acquire the skills? How do employees learn these skills? 
  • How can we reach out to our employees (communication)? 

Providing answers to these questions is essential. A company consists of employees. A corporate digital strategy is only as good as the extent to which employees pursue it, and, in the final step, the employees have to develop and implement these digital skills. 

When considering suitable communication tools, it’s also important to take a look first at the attitude the majority of the workforce has towards this topic. Are they open to this skill and happy to acquire it, or are they more critical of it? Various technological fears exist that the company needs to be aware of. Only when you’ve determined this should you look at which technology and methods you should use to acquire this digital skill. Communication plays a crucial role at this point. How is the employee going to find out about the digital skill? How will we explain the benefit of this digital skill to the employee? 

The company “builds” a change strategy from all of this information, which is then rolled out and supported in the next phase. 

Phase 3: Support and Coaching 

The measures defined are now rolled out based on the considerations in the previous phases. The aim of this phase is to help employees to leave their insecurity or lack of digital skills behind them and make them feel more confident and secure again. This phase primarily concerns the employee themself. The employee has to get the feeling that the new skill is of some use to them and that they don’t have to be afraid of using it. 

A whole range of tools is available for a company to use to achieve this, of course, starting with the multiplier networks already mentioned above, through to executives and role models, and suitable IT-supported aids. In the latter case, social intranets have proven to be particularly helpful across all sectors and industries (see “The social intranet as a central hub for acquiring digital skills”). You can reach a lot of employees quickly and easily in this way, and when implemented well, it can be the central element in various measures for change. 

At some point, the employee will no longer notice that they’ve already achieved a certain level of digital competence since they use this competence unconsciously every day. Nobody thinks about how they use a keyboard anymore, for example. Most people who work with one every day will even be able to use it (partially) without looking. 

Sustainability plays a role here as well, of course. This is because having an unconscious or conscious digital skill can also result in the loss of that skill again if you don’t practice it. After a vacation or long break due to parental leave, for instance, an employee will find it more difficult to remember structures or how to use special tools (“where do we save the presentations again?”). The company also has to make provisions for this and provide employees with the help they need to quickly find this information again. The path the employee has to take here is not as long as the one they took to acquire the skill, but they still need support along the way. At this point, social intranets also play a crucial role. 

Fast Track: Unconscious Skill Acquisition

It goes without saying that you’ll have employees in your company who have already acquired specific digital skills quite unconsciously. This can especially be of benefit to your company. 

In this case, the process of acquisition takes place unconsciously. Digital media and technologies have long been used in the day-to-day world outside of work before they were used in a company. Or an employee simply has an affinity for a certain topic. If these digital skills are ones that the company has also anchored in its digital strategy, the company can use them for its own benefit (keyword: multipliers). The unconscious acquisition of digital skills can also be a guide for a future digital strategy. People often get interested in things outside of work much earlier than companies do. This can be a competitive advantage in certain circumstances. Accordingly, the individual employee can also play a role in the analysis of unconscious digital skills. 

As important as it is for employees to act as pioneers when it comes to digital skills, it’s even more important to know who those pioneers are and assess them. 

Fig. 3: Specific content in the individual phases.

The Social Intranet as a Central Hub for acquiring Digital Skills

Tools for imparting these digital skills need to be taken into account while developing the digital strategy and the digital skills it includes for your company. These tools can, but need not, be technology-based: 

  • Blended learning through classroom and online training 
  • Webinars
  • Tutorials in your learning management system (LMS) 
  • Mentors/coaches for dissemination in group or individual discussion settings
  • Communities on the social intranet 
  • Teaching and learning materials in the form of videos, blogs, forums, etc.

Ideally speaking, the company should always choose a mixture of different elements to address different types of learning in different ways. The focus of this article is the support given to developing digital skills by using a social intranet. To this end, examples are given below about how companies can use this tool to develop digital skills and the conditions that have to be in place for this.

Social intranets (also called enterprise networks) were not just introduced to companies for the first time yesterday. Most companies already have a network like this in place in one form or another. The added value of these networks is diverse and ranges from improved networking and increased/more sustainable communication, to a tool for performing quick searches and finding information. The different applications on a social intranet vary from company to company. Often, they’ll include presentations by individual departments (showrooms), exchanges with colleagues in the national and international domain, idea finding (ideation), and management blogs, etc. Accordingly, a network of this type will cover lots of different areas of daily work and collaboration. This leads to the question as to what extent a social intranet can be used to impart and acquire digital skills. 

The European Digital Competence Framework (DigComp) and how a social intranet helps to promote the competencies described therein 

The DigComp reference framework describes what it means for citizens and ultimately EU companies to be “digitally competent.” The entire initiative here is about people. The reference framework does not focus on technologies or software, but attempts to support the confident, critical, and responsible use of digital technologies by citizens. 

The framework also provides a comprehensive description of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that citizens need in five key areas. 

If you take a look at the European Commission’s digital competence framework, it quickly becomes clear that the subject of “digital competencies” spans several areas. These include: 

  • Communication and collaboration (interaction through digital technologies, sharing, document collaboration, netiquette, profiles, etc.) 
  • Information and data (finding and storing information, data storage, etc.) 
  • Digital content creation (development, copyright, filing, etc.) 
  • Security (protection of personal data, personal profile data, passwords, etc.) 
  • Problem-solving (solving technical problems on your own, recognizing digital needs, recognizing and resolving digital gaps, etc.) 

Additionally, in companies, it’s mostly industry-specific digital skills that are required. The following shows how a social intranet can support the development of the digital skills required by the EU. It also includes practical examples of applications. 

Digital Skill: Communication and Collaboration 

This digital skill is the central point of any social intranet. The use of a platform like this conveys aspects such as content sharing, collaborating on documents, and a sense of what netiquette means on the intranet. Of course, it’s not enough here just to leave the employee alone in this digital world. So, this is where the subject of change management comes in. The employee has to be shown what they can do with this network, how it makes their daily life at work easier, and what added value it brings. 

In concrete terms, the company can convey this through various channels. Help pages on the intranet itself provide a good starting point. Many also use multipliers and ambassadors to help with this. Training courses and online and face-to-face events or webinars can also be helpful. 

Application (example): internal exchange in communities of interest/practice or with external partners

Digital skills are frequently not distributed evenly throughout a company. One employee is capable of doing a little more in one area, and someone else in another. Nevertheless, employees do exist who have the same interests, especially globally. And companies should take advantage of this. In communities of interest/practice, the company offers employees the chance to exchange ideas, ask questions, and also respond to them. This, in turn, gives third parties who are new to the subject the chance to read along and find experts in the area. 

Application (example): Digital support for strategic projects 

Just the development of a strategy alone and the finding of digital skills can take place with the help of a digital strategy. The focus is clearly on exchange and communication here. Accordingly, information can be made available online in sustainable form, and workshop results can be processed transparently and discussed online. Most platforms also offer an option for using project management functions, such as Kanban boards or project plans. 

Digital Skill: Information and Data 

A social intranet works differently than a good old data drive. A lot happens over the search and content sharing functions. Accordingly, it is extremely advantageous technically if the search works with precision. Even the best search system reaches its limits if it doesn’t contain the information you’re looking for. It’s important to show employees how to best describe content, what tagging is and how it works, and where it makes sense to share information. 

In this case, too, much can be achieved in day-to-day business operations through a good communications policy with the workforce. Therefore, managers should always lead by example. If the manager decides to build a proprietary file system, for example, the employees may decide not to set out on the correct new path. 

Application (example): Blended and Digital Learning in Communities 

The process of teaching employees digital skills is not that different from teaching them other skills. The possibility of using systems from human resources (e.g. the LMS) exists at this point too. Companies should not see this as a one-way street, however, but, at best, as a complementary system for different offerings and services. The reason for this lies in the nature of people themselves. Different types of people exist who represent different learning types (visual vs. auditory) and who have different learning interests. This is a very wide-ranging field so we won’t go into it in more detail here. Important, however, is that the different types have to be addressed in different ways. 

Depending on the possibilities the platform offers, digital learning content can be supported in different ways. Thus, the exchange in learning communities can be supported, for example, by a preparation and follow-up community for each course in the LMS, where participants and, if applicable, the tutor can exchange ideas. Many social networks offer an option for recording videos or webinars. This element can also be linked to the online community. Exchange and communication also play a central role here. The sustainability of the information should not be forgotten either, however. Participants can view the information about the course later. The same goes for employees who didn’t even take part in the course. 

Digital Skill: Creating Content 

The major topic here is collaborating on documents. Technically speaking, a lot is possible here and although each system works a little differently, they all basically have similar functions. What is decisive here, however, is that the employee learns to let go like with the other topics. This means developing content not just for yourself, but in collaboration with your other colleagues. That also means not trying to present a perfect version, but actively asking for feedback and then implementing the changes together. 

Various fears can play a role here. Companies should address and counter these fears early on. Employees need to feel that there is an advantage in creating content together. They have to see that the role models in their company do the same and follow them and understand that collaborating on something is not only more promising for their department/company in the long run, but also for themselves. 

Digital Skill: Security

Security on the intranet is a major issue. In social intranets, however, individual employees do not need not worry about whether what they are doing is secure. In most cases, this will already have been verified by IT. 

That said, however, security-related issues do exist that need to be communicated. Besides training courses and other learning units, information pages and interest groups (communities) help to address this topic in more depth. 

Digital Skill: Problem-Solving

Social intranets play a major role here too. A major strength of these systems is the ability they provide to actively search for content and ideally find it quickly and easily. If content cannot be not found, it offers a chance to get help from the network. Does, for example, a content community exist that addresses this topic specifically? Can I get help there? Has someone indicated in their digital profile that they can possibly help me? 

You can also help employees with applications like support communities, expert networks, and help forums so that they can read about technical problems and get help quickly. 

In summary, it can be said that with the wide range of technical possibilities they offer, social intranets can form an excellent basis for teaching digital skills. However, it does not suffice to simply present a solution like this to the employee in unfiltered form. Suitable applications and change measures are obligatory and need to be carried out during the entire period of the project. 

Application (example): Support Pages and Communities 

Lots of companies use their social intranet to offer help through support communities. In this case, support communities help employees to find information on various topics, and actively ask questions and visit complementary pages. At the beginning, there is often the question of who should answer inquiries. Ideally, the community regulates this on its own under the banner of the user-help-user principle. For example, if a user has a question about a feature in Excel, they can look for help at various points on the social intranet. Ideally, the user enters their question in the central search mask and finds the answer, because a previous user had already asked a similar question in the past that another user had already answered. If they fail to find an answer, they can post it in the corresponding community and hopefully receive an answer from other users. Expert networks also offer another route. Here, the employee uses the expert search to find another employee’s profile where they indicate that they are an Excel expert and that they can then contact them. 

Companies have to decide for themselves how to develop a support network for their digital skills. Do they want a central page from where different subject areas split off, or do they want several support communities on different topics? 

In summary, this section shows how companies can foster the utilization of digital skills by using a social intranet. That said, however, general conditions, limits, and challenges do exist that companies should be aware of. These are described below. 

General Conditions, Limits, and Challenges in Acquiring Digital Skills 

This strategy is particularly important when it comes to the development of digital skills. Without knowing which digital skills are to be imparted and how it will be difficult for employees to maintain a focus. This is because they, too, can only be guided through the process if they know which digital skills they should have and if they have already been made aware of them. 

Change management has been mentioned many times as a topic in this article. Without accompanying measures (communicative, training-based, through multipliers, etc.), it’s difficult for employees to develop the required digital skills on their own. Therefore, at this point, the company has to consider which digital skills bring about changes that are so serious that a change strategy is required. Not every new feature in MS Word requires its own change strategy. 

All of the applications mentioned in the previous section have something in common. In the main, they address digital exchange, information dissemination, and communication. All of these elements represent a set of digital skills at the outset. The employee has to know what the elements, such as digital profiles, communities, episodes, and likes, etc. are, and when and what they’re used for as well as how to maintain the required level of netiquette mentioned above. Therefore, before companies plan to use a social intranet to acquire digital skills, they should ensure that their employees already have enough digital skills to adequately deal with this. If that is not the case, it needs to be included in the digital strategy and then implemented.

The company needs to be aware that technology alone does not constitute overarching digital competence. In the best case, the employee simply knows where the button is for sharing content but does not know exactly why they should use it and what advantages it brings. Technology, therefore, always goes hand in hand with a certain way of thinking and behaving. Once the employee has internalized what they have to do and why, the technology behind it is almost secondary. Of course, different systems do exist that are more or less suitable for specific companies and industries, but in basic terms, the technology plays a subordinate role. 

The topic of “leadership and role models” is also of vital importance. The manager needs to demonstrate to their employees that they have digital skills. Otherwise, it will prove to be a hurdle to the employees acquiring them. Most employees do not want to oppose the way their line managers do things by perhaps storing data outside the intranet or using other methods of communicating and collaborating. Companies should therefore make sure that line managers also have enough digital skills to be able to be a role model for their employees. 

Digital skills are strongly correlated with fears. Companies have to be aware of this. The fears involved here can be diverse. Loss of individual competence due to content sharing, fear of doing/saying something wrong, fear of information transparency, etc. During the second phase (Implementation and Empowerment), companies have to be aware of these fears and know what to do if employees have developed or develop them in the future. 

It is also important to question the legitimacy of a specific status quo time and time again: 

  • Are the digital skills that we have imparted still the right ones? 
  • What is the status of these skills with our employees? Have they acquired the digital skills required? 
  • If not: what can we do?

This is the only way of making sure that the company is constantly at the forefront in terms of its digital skills and therefore still competitive. 


The goal of every company should be to have its employees use digital skills unconsciously without thinking about them (unconscious digital skills). This is always associated with a certain learning process. This takes place at both the company level (all employees need this digital skill) and at the employee level (I still have to acquire this digital skill). Equally important is choosing the right digital skills. After all, what good does it do the company if the employees have developed skills that are not beneficial in the competitive arena? 

Social intranets represent an excellent way to convey digital skills to employees through various elements (support communities, expert networks, etc.). However, it has also been shown that the guided acquisition of digital skills is also essential. This begins with the digital strategy and ends with its implementation on the social intranet and/or in connection with other elements. Major changes in digital skills should always be accompanied by a change strategy.

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The Social Intranet

Foster collaboration and strengthen communication. Be effective with enterprise intranets mobile and in the cloud.

Virtual Collaboration in Companies: Social Intranets as a Digital Home 

Never before has the business world been so overrun by cloud software and specialized vendors as it is now. There is so much software out there that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of things. It is all the more important for the future of work to have a place for digital meeting - a reliable home port meaningfully networked with numerous other systems that makes it quick and easy to navigate. This will increase transparency in the company and make collaboration more effective. Based on many years of experience, this book tells you how it already works in today's digitalized world and which trends you probably should rather than shouldn't follow.

About the author

Martin Seibert was 17 when he founded the software company Seibert Media. Twenty-four years later, it has nearly 200 employees and generates 35 million euros in annual sales. He has been sharing his enthusiasm for technology in YouTube videos for many years - and now also in his new book about social intranets.

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This content was last updated on 03/31/2021.

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