We live in a digital world
Digital technology is the reality of the world we live in. It touches every aspect of our lives in a way unprecedented even twenty years ago.
The pace of digital development has been steadily gathering momentum for many years. Each advancement feeds into the next and so increases the rate of change.
The two most recent generations have grown up with digital technology, as an intrinsic part of their lives. It is innate in them. Keeping up to date is a natural process and occurs subconsciously as part of everyday life.
Previous generations are more digitally disadvantaged and have to consciously make the effort to become and remain digitally literate.
Digital literacy is a language; the more digital skills you have, the better you can speak it.
Without a basic level of digital knowledge and skills, quality of life would be seriously disadvantaged for the vast majority of the global population.
We are a society driven by technology. Such is its impact, that there are countries where citizens don’t have running water, but own smartphones.
Digital technologies now underpin effective participation in key areas of life and work. In addition to technology access, the skills and competencies needed to make use of digital technology, and benefit from its growing power and functionality, have never been more essential.
Digital skills in the workplace
A lack of digital talent in the right areas is hampering the progress of many companies, across a vast range of industries. Having a workforce that is underprepared for the change ahead can be crippling to any organisation.
The European Commission recently published the final report of the study” ICT for Work. Digital Skills in the Workplace”
The evidence shows that digital technologies are used in all types of jobs, also in economic sectors not traditionally related to digitalisation, eg; farming, healthcare, construction, and vocational training.
The digital economy is transforming the way people work, and the skills they need for work. Most jobs require basic digital skills, including being able to communicate via email, or social media, to create and edit digital documents, and to search for information, or to protect personal information, online.
It is estimated that by 2022, almost two thirds of all jobs will require some form of secondary education, or training. This means that more people are increasingly, seeking other types of educational credentials, such as certification, or industry recognised credentials.
It is further estimated that more than 1.2million UK Businesses are underperforming, due to “insufficient digital awareness and lack of necessary skills”. (European Commission 2017)
In the workplace, it is becoming harder and harder to get away with limited technology.
At one time, simply knowing how to use Microsoft Office, would have been enough, but today, it is imperative to expand employees’ digital knowledge and skill set, much further.
As far back as 2015, the House of Lords stated that digital skills should be taught as the third “core subject”, alongside numeracy and literacy. While there’s no doubt that being adept at using digital tools and technologies is essential for everyone in the 21st century, possessing digital skills is not the same as being digitally literate. It’s a mistake to assume that exposure to digital tools and technologies automatically equates to the knowledge of how to use these effectively.
Employees may be tech-savvy digital natives. They may know their way around a tablet, smartphone and laptop better than most. More often than not, they know how to do a voice search on an iPad, share selfies on Instagram, play a video game and send a GIF on WhatsApp.
In general, employees now have higher academic qualifications but fewer ‘workplace skills’: put simply, they know more, but can do less.
What they lack is the integral knowledge and understanding of the processes of how to use digital tools and technologies to communicate and achieve their Organisation’s business goals.
Skills gaps across all industries are poised to grow in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and other emerging technologies are happening in ever shorter cycles, changing the very nature of the jobs that need to be done – and the skills needed to do them – faster than ever before.
One of the biggest factors driving the importance of digital skills, is that the buyer’s journey has changed.
Historically, consumers were served disruptive ad messaging, via television, radio, or print advertising. Today however, they hold the power, seeking out information, to solve their problems, online, discovering the solutions, and choosing the best one.
This shift has placed huge importance on the ability of Organisations to market themselves online, to ensure they are reaching this new breed of consumers. Make no mistake, Customers are the new Sales force! Unless Organisations become digitally capable, they risk being left behind, by increasingly superior digital workforces in competitor Organisations.
Sizing up the problem
The term ‘digital skills’ refers to a range of different abilities, many of which are not only ‘skills’ per se, but a combination of behaviours, expertise, know-how, work habits, character traits, dispositions and critical understandings.
What is really interesting about the conversation around the skills gap, is that there is no real agreement about what skills are unavailable.
Given the lack of agreement on precisely which skills are in short supply, it’s not surprising to find that there’s also no consensus about why there is a skills gap. However, there are plenty of theories about it, and also about how to improve matters. The unequivocal reality though, is that Organisations must face two hard truths:
First, digital transformation is not an option. And second, addressing the digital skills shortage can make or break the future of their company.
The need to up-skill is growing among working professionals. The problem is, it isn’t easy to define what skills are most needed.
Addressing the gaps in digital skills, is multifaceted. Organisations need to be able to boast a range of digital skills; from being able to upload content to their website, use of social media, and an understanding of Search engine optimisation (SEO), to the use of cloud-based software, multi-device capabilities, social media and basic coding skills. However, while it makes sense to learn hard digital skills, the shortage is equally pronounced in soft skills, ie skills that computers can’t easily master.
The top three soft skills that companies are looking for now are:
- Creative thinking
We need to stop thinking of “soft skills” as some kind of ad-on, and instead include them on our list of essentials for job and career success. People have this notion that it takes “hard hitting” skills to win in this world. Not so. It is only part of the solution. Complementing your Team’s technical skills with targeted soft skills can reduce project risk and dramatically enhance the probability of project success. Embracing both elements improves your netiquette and strengthens your online image.
Soft skills have always been important, even if they haven’t received as much attention as hard skills. But they are growing more important as technology takes over tasks and replaces humans in many activities.
Look at it this way: hard skills help you get the job done faster, while soft skills are what helps you get the job done better. You need both in order to excel, but more importantly, you need both to achieve optimum performance at Organisational level.
So…..What is the way forward?
Well that is the question!
If there was a simple answer to remedying the gap in digital skills, we would all be aware of it, and there would be no need for continued discussion, such as we have now. So how do we move forward? Because of the relative uncertainties around what skills are actually lacking, a more rounded diagnostic approach is probably a good starting point, rather than heading straight into prescriptive mode. The way forward is multifaceted and involves addressing the problem from a number of diverse angles.
Sitting at the heart of the problem is influencing the mindset of organisations, from the top echelons and onwards throughout the whole workforce.
Leaders define the direction of their Organisations. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Leaders undoubtedly have a direct effect on organisational culture.
Leaders can be the person that builds up, or the source of destruction for the entire Organisation.
Staff feed into the culture of the Organisation, making the will of their Leaders their own and working toward a unified, greater goal.
An additional dimension in the digital skills predicament, in this regard, is that most senior leaders are technically more out of date than most of the employees in the business.
The nature of senior management roles is such, that they are more detached from the sharp end of a Company’s operations delivery and are more aligned to strategic guidance and overall Company performance. Inevitably, their level of digital knowledge and dexterity, declines over time, due to lack of use. Often talking about a particular technology just causes anxiety and can cause digital transformation to sound like an IT upgrade. This issue is further exacerbated by Leaders at the top of the hierarchy, being unaware of the need for change until well after issues have arisen at the customer level, along with confusion and disagreement over the cause of issues and the required remedial actions to be taken.
What is required is a comprehensive appraisal of an Organisation’s digital profile by the Company’s Leaders and the development of a remedial plan of action.
Digital transformation is driven by strategy, not technology. Less digitally mature organisations tend to focus on individual pieces of technology rather than a holistic digital strategy and the outcomes that new, digital opportunities can deliver.
A true digital transformation strategy should include a shared vision for transformation, and the pathways or outcomes required to deliver the vision.
This in itself is a completely new way of thinking and can be difficult to achieve for companies who are low down on the digital maturity curve. Coupled with this strategy, there must be a leadership group responsible for both starting, driving and maintaining the digital programmes and initiatives across the company.
Once an audit of suitable programs has been conducted, Educators can search for ways to add a digital element to a degree/diploma programme and look to provide accredited certifications that can boost a continuing education programme or training portfolio.
On a more specific note, recent studies indicate that learning programmes should be revisited, particularly those that now require digital elements such as sales and marketing. Both of these professions have been shaken up by digital with new technologies presenting new ways to engage with and influence customers and as such grow revenue.
In fact, a third of key decision makers believe the primary responsibility of growth strategies and revenue generation lies with the marketing domain creating a huge demand for marketers with digital experience at all levels.
What does digital skills shortage mean for Educators and how can they play their role in creating digitally adept employees that are an asset to the workforce?
Educators must step out of the shadows and own up to their scholarly responsibilities, by applying a discrete focus on the importance of developing and maintaining progressive digital knowledge and training programmes linked to recognised qualifications. Eg Educators could create and offer programs that encompass emerging digital skills and softer skills such as problem-solving and communication to produce more employable job seekers.
Consider other credentials
According to Pew Research Center, while the traditional college degrees will still hold clout in 2026, Employers are becoming increasingly more acceptive of alternative credential systems, as self-directed learning options and their measures become more sophisticated. As the digital world continues to shift and employees grow with technology, new roles will emerge on a continual basis, meaning that many will have to learn on the job or as the role evolves, making traditional credentials in some areas, almost obsolete.
Offering alternative credentials such as certifications will also feed into the competency hiring model being adopted by increasing numbers of employers and demonstrate not only a valuable skillset, but also a willingness to learn independently.
Along with niche skills, this new hiring approach takes practical experience into account such as work experience, or an apprenticeship getting first-hand experience. It also looks at a candidate from a bird’s eye view looking at abilities over and above qualifications such as problem-solving, communication and critical thinking – skills viewed as crucial in a progressive and agile workforce.
The McKinsey Report confirmed recently, that the benefits of workforce diversity, drive both innovation and results. The rise of competency-based hiring amongst corporates provides a great opportunity for recent graduates and young professionals with niche talents that are in demand by employers – skills such as analytics, AI and SEO.
Rethink the usual talent pool
Businesses must also develop new approaches to workforce development for those outside of traditional talent pools. By hiring people from diverse backgrounds, including young people, minority groups and those without a college education, businesses can tap into a huge pool of high-potential and under-utilised talent.
Having such a strategic blueprint in place, provides the foundation to build a self-perpetuating digital development programme. This helps future proof the Company, by assimilating new technology on a continuous basis, thereby retaining the opportunity for continued growth and competitive advantage.
Be Employee friendly
Businesses must aim to become an ‘employer of choice’ in order to boost their chances of attracting and retaining talent. In a competitive jobs market, securing top talent isn’t only about offering an attractive salary package and other perks. Millennial employees in particular want to work for an organisation of which they can feel proud. Those with high-value skills will increasingly vote with their feet if a business doesn’t align with their values.
Salesforce research shows that Companies that lead with their values, create social impact and work towards building a more diverse and inclusive culture are better positioned to boost employee engagement and productivity, and win the war for talent.
Best-practice recruitment and providing opportunities for ongoing personal development and community service also go a long way towards attracting and retaining top talent.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to enable businesses to future-proof their workforces. However, by making upskilling, re-skilling and employee retention priorities and freeing up the resources needed to build a continuous learning culture, businesses will be well
positioned to thrive in a rapidly changing, ever challenging commercial environment.
“In order to survive, Businesses must recognise that it is not sufficient to use technology. They must live technology”.