Readying the workforce for digital opportunities


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While the skills and capabilities required in a digital age will vary, there are factors that all can prioritise

Many industries have been radically changed by digital technologies, and digital disruption means that companies can no longer afford to sit still. They can either seize the opportunity – like game-changers Netflix and Instagram – or disappear like Kodak and Blockbuster.

But the possibilities opened up by digital disruption can only be exploited if an organisation has a workforce that is primed to seize them. The recent NHS cyber-security breach demonstrates the risks organisations face when not equipped to deal with technological changes. With 47% of organisations struggling to find workers with the digital skills they require, there has never been a stronger need for firms to develop the skills of their current workforces, and ensure that they have the agility to meet new opportunities and threats.

While the skills and capabilities required in a digital age will vary based on industry and role, there are some factors that are broadly relevant, and that all organisations can prioritise.

Many employees are expected to be comfortable working with technology, including mobile devices, digital workflows and online communications. And as more basic tasks are automated workers can expect to take on higher-level roles that require data collection, data analysis and problem-solving skills. This calls for training that prioritises critical thinking and applied knowledge among employees able to make sense of, and act upon, the wealth of automated data that resides in every business.

As business leaders seek to increase digital skills, and to improve productivity and agility, it’s natural to look for the ‘silver bullet’ – a solution to secure the skills needed to innovate and build the workforce of the future. And while, fundamentally, there is no silver bullet we’ve identified some critical components:

  • Align your workforce development and HR strategy with business priorities. This might sound obvious, but it’s crucial to co-ordinate your training approach with the organisation’s overall strategy. And it’s key to define the skills gaps within the workforce – an internal audit can help to highlight the skills that are lacking currently, and those that will be the most valuable in the future.
  • Embrace flexible training. Employers can benefit from embracing technology in training, experimenting with more versatile ways of deploying development opportunities. Using technology to deliver training and offering new ways to learn via social learning platforms and other online forums may lead to better engagement levels, and faster results. Our recently commissioned report authored by Towards Maturity – The Work-Based Learning Dividend – suggests that modernising training through technology can increase time to competence by 15%, with 20% of learning and development leaders saying it had boosted employees’ engagement with learning.
  • Technology-enabled learning can provide a multitude of other benefits. These include reduced time away from the workplace, or enabling new skills to be put into practice immediately. By working with employees using collaborative technologies, such as Basecamp and Yammer, organisations can encourage staff to give more detailed feedback.
  • Invest, invest, invest. Ultimately the crux of the issue is that organisations must invest adequately in training to improve digital skills; making it a key business priority not a ‘nice to have’ or afterthought. A good training and development programme will breed loyalty, increase motivation and boost productivity.

So, while digital skills are becoming a necessity, we believe the employers that will thrive in the future will be those that concentrate on ensuring their staff have adequate skills to capitalise on technology. Real ‘digital winners’ will integrate learning and work to create a skilled and diverse workforce that can respond to changes within the organisation and the wider business landscape.

David Willett is a director at The Open University

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