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What are digital skills and why are they important? It seems that we often take digital skills for granted, especially when talking to digital natives -. However, there is often a gap between what organisations need and the digital skills of their employees. How do we address this?

In the autumn of 2020, Microsoft worked with Goldsmiths, University of London, to explore how improved digital skills can unlock greater potential for companies in the UK. The research covered five important and distinct areas; the digital skills gap, the bottom line opportunity for business, the rise of the next generation worker, steps required to embrace digital skills along with case studies and examples.

In my own experience, our attitudes to digital skills have changed over the years. It used to be common for people to list some digital skills on their CV, such as a familiarity with Microsoft Excel. Now there is often an assumption that most people know how to navigate the web, use email, and use basic business tools like spreadsheets. But has this assumption led to a skills gap in the UK?

According to the Microsoft research, 69% of UK business leaders believe that their organisation is facing a digital skills gap and 70% expect to experience one inside the next year. 44% believe that this skills gap will directly impact the performance of their business in the next year. A third of leaders consider it a priority to upgrade the digital skills of their workforce and people want to learn – 59% of employees believe this will make them more attractive on the employment market, but cost and a lack of any skills strategy are preventing this training and development.

Only 24% of business leaders believe that the government is doing anything to tackle the problem and only 28% believe that the education system is preparing people with the digital skills a modern workforce needs. There is cash on the table for companies that address the problem. The research also suggests that improving these skills can immediately unlock about 2.4% of a company’s bottom line – for larger organisations this is a financial performance improvement measured in millions.

80% of business leaders believe that digital skills are essential for the longer-term recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and 78% see this as an important way to make UK industry more effective against global competition.

It’s worth noting that digital skills can be creative or consumptive – the ability to create something new or the ability to consume information. Creative skills have over twice the impact of an improvement in consumptive skills. It’s still important to know how to find and use information, but the ability to create tools, systems, and information is even more valuable.

This list summarises in more detail the six-different type of digital skills covered in the research:

  1. Information literacy — the ability to find, evaluate, manage, curate, organise and share digital information.
  2. Data literacy — the ability to collate, manage, access and use digital data in spreadsheets, databases and other formats, and to interpret data by running queries, data analyses and reports. A skillset necessary to progress into areas like cloud computing and AI.
  3. Media literacy — the ability to critically receive and respond to messages in a range of media and to curate, re-edit and repurpose media, giving due recognition to originators.
  4. Digital creation — the capacity to design and/or create new digital materials such as apps, code, interfaces and web pages alongside an understanding of the digital production process and the basics of editing and coding.
  5. Digital research and problem solving — the ability to use digital evidence to solve problems and answer questions, collect and collate new evidence, evaluate the quality and value of evidence, and to share evidence and findings using digital methods.
  6. Digital innovation — the ability to use digital technologies in developing new ideas, projects and opportunities.

When presented like this I believe that both the problem and opportunity is clear. There is a need to move beyond our digital skills assumptions and to create more systematic strategies that identify where skills are weaker and then focus on improvement in those areas.

Just 17% of employees currently feel able to create new digital tools or systems and this is where they can create the most impact. I believe that many professional employees will need a basic understanding of automation in the very near future and this will require the ability to think clearly about how to define and improve a process using a tool such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Non-IT professionals need to understand some basic coding.

Many executives may not appreciate that coding is a skill that may now be important outside of the IT department, but most professional jobs involve searching, filtering, curating, and publishing information. HR, lawyers, estate agents, accountants – they all receive, process, and create new information. Automation systems, such as RPA, are going to be an important way to improve productivity in all these professions.

What are the next steps you can take? The Microsoft research has some detailed advice, but essentially it can be summarised as three distinct steps:

  1. Integrate digital: upskilling, recruitment, and change programmes to embrace and encourage the use of digital skills – with a focus on boosting productive skills even more than consumptive.
  2. Unleash your next generation workers: evaluate your training and development programme and create opportunities for employees to use their digital skills – encourage hackathons and other innovative ways to tackle business problems using technology.
  3. Empower people: offer training that goes beyond the technical and direct needs of the job, embrace difference and diversity, focus on building a culture that embraces creativity and innovation.

Not everyone can be a superstar coder, but what is clear is that most organisations can improve their business performance by embracing and improving digital skills.   Those that build this into the core culture of their business will be the winners.

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