Rethinking digital skills

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We are living in the fourth industrial revolution. According to the World Economic Forum, this is “…a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technology advances commensurate with those of the first, second and third industrial revolutions.”

The changes that the fourth industrial revolution will bring are technology-driven, but the impact is very human. Our laws, policies and our philosophy need to adapt, and we need to recognize the way technology now shapes every hour of our waking lives. As with any revolution, roles change, leaders emerge, ideas rise and fall. We struggle to make the transition from the old world to the new, and to integrate the changes into our regular patterns. Industrial revolutions create huge upheaval in the labour market, creating changes which affect where and how we work, and also the parts of our identities that are linked to what we do. Different countries will experience the changes at different times, and generations will be affected in different ways.

Defining digital

If the revolution is digital, we need to fully understand what we mean by ‘digital’. The current trend is to attach ‘digital’ to other terms to create a new label – digital organizations, digital leaders, digital strategy, digital skills and so on. But what does this actually mean? How is a digital leader different from a leader? What content does a digital strategy have that separates it from a strategy?
In this blog, I want to look at one term specifically – ‘digital skills’. What does it mean? How and when will we learn digital skills? Are digital skills for all, or reserved for knowledge workers?

What are digital skills?

To many people, digital skills are exclusive and hard to acquire – think about coding for example, or the super-hacker accessing FBI databases with a few keystrokes in a film. This perspective looks at digital skills as being rare, unattainable, and linked to innate capabilities. You’re born a geek, or not. This viewpoint fails to recognize that everyone now needs digital skills to live in the world. To be a citizen, to connect with our communities, and often, to learn, we require the ability to interact with technology and have it meet our demands.

Unesco defines digital skills in a way that covers both of these perspectives – as “… a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information. They enable people to create and share digital content, communicate and collaborate, and solve problems for effective and creative self-fulfillment in life, learning, work, and social activities at large. At the advanced spectrum of digital skills are the higher-level abilities that allow users to make use of digital technologies in empowering and transformative ways such as professions in ICT. Major digital transformations such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data analytics, change skills requirements and, in turn, impact capacity building and skills development for the 21st century digital economy.”

The UK government has created a digital skills framework, which sets out five categories of essential digital skills for life and work:

It’s not all about knowledge workers

To fully understand digital skills, we need to look at them in the broadest possible context. Digital skills aren’t just for office workers; consider, for example, how technology now impacts sectors such as farming, logistics, or the automotive industry. The digital skills that people need can be viewed on a sliding scale of complexity; for example from a citizen who needs to register for a local government service, through to the product team building and operating that service. Different roles, different stages of life, and different ambitions will require different levels of skill.

We can develop this idea by using the concept of digital literacy (Cornell University). This is defined as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize and create information using digital technology.” People need to be equipped with the right level of digital skills at the right time to achieve their desired outcomes. As their outcomes change, the skills they need must also adapt and change. Everyone will need digital skills, but to a greater or lesser level of proficiency.

Start young and don’t stop

Make or Break: The UK’s digital future offers some clear guidance about the importance of digital skills, including the foundations that need to be in place to support them. It points out that “those who are not numerate and literate have limited access to and use of digital technologies. The UK has a longstanding systemic weakness in numeracy and literacy.” It’s clear that digital skills rely on not-so-digital skills, and the education of a digital workforce has to start in our schools. The report defines an objective that “No child leaves the education system without basic numeracy, literacy and digital literacy.”

The one thing we all know about technology is that it changes continually. The foundations that are built in schools must be a stepping stone towards a lifelong learning approach. Digital literacy isn’t a certificate we can earn and then move on from, it requires ongoing review, refresh and renewal. Digital literacy can be nurtured through:

  • Primary and secondary education
  • Higher education
  • Employers and businesses
  • Local and national government initiatives

Ultimately, however, as individuals we should feel an incentive to update our own digital literacy.

Digital education must also encompass the different generations. From baby boomers through generation X, to xennials and millennials, it’s important to recognize that people who grew up without technology may need more education than those who have been swiping and clicking from their very early years.

What do we need to learn, and how?

So what does the digital curriculum need to look like? What topics should be covered, and how do we ensure that our digital skills are future proof?

Most education beyond school is ultimately driven by the job market. A far from exhaustive list of ‘digital jobs’ from a quick search includes:

  • Digital marketer
  • Social media consultant
  • Digital account director
  • Digital product manager
  • Digital strategy consultant
  • Digital video editor
  • Digital project manager
  • Digital designer.

The desire to put ‘digital’ in front of things clearly also applies to jobs. The lesson here is that our focus can’t be on teaching people just about a specific type of technology. Digital literacy must come from an understanding of HOW to use technology, and what benefits it can bring to a specific role, sector, or industry.

Some organizations in the service management field have worked to develop approaches to help build better digital literacy. For example, the International Foundation for Digital Competencies (IFDC) sponsored the creation of VeriSM™– [A service management approach for the digital age ISBN-10 : 9401802408], the service management approach for the digital age. VeriSM is built around a digital product or service lifecycle (define, produce, provide, respond), with a focus on understanding requirements and not creating ‘technology first’ solutions. At each stage of the lifecycle, knowing the right questions, processes and methods can add as much value as an understanding of the technology itself. Learn more at https://www.ifdc.global/.

So called ‘soft skills’ (customer service, negotiation, communication etc.) are an essential part of many roles in the digital economy. These can be some of the most challenging to learn, but are excluded from a technology-led curriculum.

Perhaps we can use techniques from software development to help us build digital skills. We can use personas (fictional characters representing groups who are using a product) or user stories (a way to capture a description from an end user perspective). It’s clear that there is no one perfect digital curriculum, but we should be able to build a roadmap that takes people from the ability to use technology to carry out daily transactions through to the use of technology in their career and beyond.

Some work has already been done to support employers and individuals. SFIA, the skills framework for the information age, “describes the skills and competencies required by professionals in roles involved in information and communication technologies, digital transformation and software engineering.” This allows organizations to understand the skills they have, the skills they need, and work out a plan to fill the gaps.

The importance of digital skills

So what, an employer might ask, is in it for me? I have a chain of shops, or a fleet of lorries, and we’re doing fine with limited technology. The answer to this is that we can’t see the opportunity cost of poor digital skills. If employees have greater digital literacy, will it allow businesses to take advantage of opportunities that they previously just couldn’t see? Does the schoolchild learning basic digital literacy grow into the leader who creates the digital strategy that transforms the organization?  Is somebody, somewhere, hatching a plot to launch a digital competitor to your business that would leave you at a disadvantage?

In conclusion

The Unesco report quoted in the introduction to this blog goes on to say that “To thrive in the connected economy and society, digital skills must also function together with other abilities such as strong literacy and numeracy skills, critical and innovative thinking, complex problem solving, an ability to collaborate, and socio-emotional skills.”

It is clear that digital skills are essential to support the growing digital economy, but what makes them different to ‘regular’ skills? Why the need to create the digital silo? Are we building barriers that will ultimately need to be removed? Digital literacy can improve access to learning for all subjects, so is it best viewed as a thread that runs through our education, from school to university and into the workplace (and beyond?). Digital skills add to and complement existing knowledge and capabilities. They don’t replace them, or stand alone.

Part of the digital skills that we need to build take every day concepts and translate them into the digital world; for example, IBM has produced an ethical code of practice for AI developers. This is necessary – conventional societal ethics still applies in the digital world but we need to translate it into new terminology and add “digital use cases”. But the fundamental ethical positions around “do as you would be done by”, “don’t exploit the powerless” etc. really haven’t changed. Digital doesn’t require the reinvention of ethics, it requires a translation into different environments.

It’s hard to write anything without mentioning the ongoing COVID pandemic. One of the lessons from the last 12 months has been the value that digital technology can bring to our lives. From online schooling to online shopping, family group chats and track and trace systems, the importance of digital skills has been highlighted in all elements of our lives.

Ultimately, we must remember that technology alone doesn’t fix anything. It’s how we use it that counts. Digital is more than just a buzzword or a marketing message. Technology has the potential to affect every part of our lives, and the skills we need to enable its effective use must form part of an education strategy that supports lifelong learning.

This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.

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