When we think of digital skills, images of people coding, fixing computers and using multiple apps leap to mind.
But this limited view of digital skills is putting significant growth at risk. This article reveals the misunderstanding around digital skills and the impact this could have on UK businesses.
There is a widespread misconception about digital skills. In our survey of 5,000 professionals, 47% of respondents viewed digital skills as the ability to code and programme, build a website or create mobile/computer applications. 4 of the top 5 associations with digital skills were basic IT skills (e.g. using phones or software applications).
Yet skills such as coding or the ability to use digital devices only form part of the digital skillset we actually use. It’s not enough to focus on tools alone. If we want to fully unlock our potential while adapting to rapid environmental, social, political, economic and technological changes, we have to think more holistically. Operational and behavioural skills – at an individual, team and organisational level – also drive performance and value. They cannot be ignored if we want to truly understand, drive and measure successes in digitally dependent organisations, which is pretty much all organisations.
What we miss in our perception of digital skills are essential human skills like creative problem-solving, empathy and conflict resolution. High-performing teams need psychologically safe environments, effective coaching and discerning feedback. Organisations need a clearly communicated mission and values, driven by inspirational leadership. When combined with professional skills such as product management, human skills are key to unlocking the power of digital: boosting efficiency, delighting customers and solving complex challenges.
Change is needed in our education system
To achieve this, we have to change the way we set ourselves up for success. One of the most impactful points to do this would be at primary and secondary level education. Boys and girls form their opinions on what jobs look like as young as 7 or 8. We need to be giving the future generations a true idea of what a career in digital looks like, while avoiding the stereotypes.
We saw, during the early stage of the pandemic, how the myth of the “digital native” generation was even more painfully exposed. Students struggled with basic digital literacy, which was a major contributing factor to low engagement with online learning from home. While there are many reasons for this low engagement, including vast economic disparities, where some students have to share a single device with multiple siblings if they have one at all, the challenge also lies in curriculum design.
Focusing predominantly on technical skills such as programming, the 2014 computing curriculum was a significant departure from the former much-criticised ICT curriculum, which saw students learning basic, dull and unchallenging IT user skills – the highlights of lessons seemed to be the ability to play with Microsoft Office’s Assistant “Clippy”.
Yet the redesigned curriculum, which aimed to secure a competitive edge in the global digital economy, neglected the teaching of essential human skills (more easily dismissed as “soft skills” at the time) in the aim to build more academic rigour. Criticism of the damaging connotations of “soft skills” (that the skills are easy and less valuable compared to “hard, technical skills”) and renaming them as “human skills” only surfaced prominently in 2016 – two years too late to fully earn the respect of curriculum designers.
Learning and development professionals are still having to challenge the perception of the value of these skills today. And yet, it is people equipped with these human skills that tend to perform best in the modern workplace.
Fight the perceptions
More focus also needs to be devoted to building confident digital literacy. With only 45 minute slots for computing up to GCSE, there is not enough opportunity to build confident digital know-how. It is not surprising that common associations with digital skills do not just focus on elements like coding, but also still fixate on basic device usage.
To make improvements, we need to integrate more frequent opportunities to build basic digital literacy across the curriculum as a whole, not just in packed computing lessons. Broadening the focus of “computing” itself to include human skills would better equip those coming into the modern workplace too.
Those of us in the technology industry can also increase presence in schools, showcasing the full range of digital skills needed. This gives us the additional benefit of serving as representative role models; particularly crucial when we consider that the number of women studying computing at A Level dropped to just 15% in 2021 (compared to 35% under the ICT curriculum).
During a Black History Month livestream at AND, one of our own Squad Leads shared that she “edited herself out” of a career in digital when the only role models she saw were white and male. We can do more to fight pervasive and limited perceptions of what it means to “work in tech”.
Business growth is dependent on digital skills
There is an economic imperative to equip more people with digital skills. Company leaders we surveyed told us that, on average, 61% of their five year growth targets would be at risk if their digital ambitions do not materialise. Across the UK, this equates to roughly £50bn of growth revenue that is in jeopardy if we don’t have the skills to deliver on these digital ambitions.
This risk is compounded when we consider the current share of digital-related employed roles in the UK (7-14%) and the number of digital skill related vacancies demanded. In the first seven months of 2022, there were over 2M posted out of a total of 8.5M vacancies, representing 23.5% of all vacancies. The significant demand is outstripping current supply. Without building skills internally, organisations will struggle to have digital capabilities they need to meet growth ambitions.
Upskill, don’t just recruit
With people staying in workforces longer than ever before and careers spanning five decades becoming the norm, upskilling at a massive scale is needed. However, this need is not fully addressed; a worrying 6 in 10 (58%) people we surveyed in the UK told us that they have already been negatively affected by a lack of digital skills.
Organisations can’t just rely on recruiting from a limited pool of digital specialists. More focus is also needed by organisations to upskill their own employees, in both tech and human digital skills. At a recent digital skills panel debate in Manchester, the director of a recruitment agency stated bluntly that:
“Many businesses are currently overpaying to bring in external digital skills because of increased competition and this just isn’t sustainable. Upskilling your current teams should be as important as recruiting in new talent to keep costs in check and create a more balanced and loyal workforce.”
It’s crucial to upskill employees, not only to get the necessary digital capabilities in our organisations, but to build loyalty and retain valued team members.
Traditional training needs to be revamped
To build digital capability in-house, effective and impactful training is needed on the full range of digital skills, not just tech skills such as engineering and coding.
This training needs to be bite-sized and accessible at the point of need for time-poor employees. Shorter, spaced sessions enable learning to be tested and consolidated, which helps fight the “forgetting curve”. Companies often create training materials that focus on the acquisition of knowledge but retention and application need to be a greater priority to secure a good return on investment too.
Active learning communities of practice can also provide further opportunities to use the learned knowledge and build skills in the real-world. In this way, learning is embedded successfully and people are fully supported with successfully applying their digital skills.
Human skills can be learned
The myth of the “natural born leader” is pervasive, yet we know that when it comes to human skills, they can and should be defined and taught. Managers should work with their teams to identify what success looks like from beginner to specialist level. This enables team leaders to better track skills strengths and gaps and know where to hire in new talent versus where to build training.
It’s time for us to address this ‘understanding gap’ around digital skills and give equal priority to the human skills as we give to the technical skills.
Join the debate here: https://www.and.digital/digital-skills-gap-barometer.
About the Author
Harriet Perks is head of AND Digital’s London Academy. A former teacher, Harriet leads AND Digital’s London Academy and is responsible for equipping hundreds of both clients and ANDis in digital skills every year. She designs AND’s high-impact training and helps build learning communities across the company, ensuring people are able to apply the skills they have acquired to real world situations.
AND Digital is a digital services company with a mission to close the world’s digital skills gap. It guides, builds and equips organisations in the development of world-class digital capabilities. Employing 1,700 strong and growing digital experts, its unique approach of equipping its clients with the digital skills and capabilities they need to excel, rather than leaving them dependent, has been the driver of the company’s rapid growth.
Featured image: AND Digital