man on unicycle wearing a cape juggling swords in front of a crowd
PHOTO: Evan Clark

There was a time when "knowledge worker" implied "white collar." But we are all knowledge workers now, so we all need digital skills. Sadly, few organizations seem to adequately invest in this. It’s assumed everyone knows how to use spreadsheets and word processors, while in practice people muddle through using just the basics. They still share files as email attachments, and review documents by inserting red text and highlights like it was a piece of paper.

Few businesses would give manual workers a new tool for cutting or measuring and tell them to figure it out. We should expect the same level of support for our digital workplace. Here are seven skills every worker would benefit from:

  1. Versioning and co-editing.
  2. Digital emotional intelligence.
  3. How to share safely.
  4. How to structure for reading online.
  5. How to search and verify content.
  6. Data analytics.
  7. Citizen development.

Versioning and Co-Editing

Boy, a lot has been written about collaboration on CMSWire! But for many in business it boils down to Janet writing something, then Pedro, Bill and Chen adding a bit, commenting, correcting and finally agreeing.

The efficient way to do this is for there to be a single copy of the document, with a system that automatically saves snapshots so that if Bill deletes half of it by mistake, you can roll back to an earlier version. It works best when everyone can work on the document at the same time (co-editing), so nobody gets the “Document locked by Chen” warning.

Reviewers should use a commenting tool, so that comments aren’t integral to the text, and edits should be tracked so others can see which sections have changed.

This isn’t hard, but if Pedro decides he will take his own copy, make a bunch of changes and then email it round, you get branched versions, disconnected comments and Janet with a headache.

Digital Emotional Intelligence

Many people work remotely at least part of the time (some put it as high as 70%). This means we can no longer check colleagues’ welfare just by looking across the office to see how they are doing. Isolation, burnout and disengagement become greater risks.

Colleagues need to learn how to pick up cues in other ways. For example, knowing when a curt typed message is best responded to by a video call. On messaging apps such as Slack and Teams, it can also be about preserving small rituals: saying good morning, or opening up a voice chat for a virtual coffee break.

Some homeworkers even go so far as to keep a team call open the whole day, similar to people in long-distance relationships sync-watching TV over Skype. Now that VOIP calls at zero cost are easy, it can be used as an ambient channel if participants agree.

Related Article: Workplace Technology Has a Down Side: The Solution Is Within Reach

How to Share Safely

Insecure file sharing exposes businesses to risk from data leakage and failure to comply with regulations such as GDPR. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to do it well, leading to misuse of consumer accounts such as Dropbox or WeTransfer to do the job. All business-grade file sharing tools such as OneDrive for Business, G-Suite Google Drive and Dropbox Professional have tools to tailor sharing links, for example with read-only access or restricted domains.

Conversely, some people don’t want to use tools such as SharePoint at all, because they are afraid all their files will be seen. SharePoint doesn’t make it easy, but it is worth learning how to check who has access for reassurance (see screenshot and the excellent guide by Ellen van Aken).

check permissions
You can verify who can see a file in SharePoint and where permission has been granted.

How to Structure for Reading Online

We can all help each other be more effective by putting the main points first when we write.

You know the long rambling email that leaves the actual question to the very end? The intranet page that fills the screen with “about us” guff, pushing the links and templates everyone really needs out of sight? Most of us learned how to write at school or college, following the academic model that builds up all the arguments and puts the conclusion last.

In business we need the conclusion first, then some context, then (optionally) the detail.  It’s called the inverted pyramid, and particularly applies in this age of mobile-screen reading.

Related Article: Internal Communicators, Please Don't Abandon the Intranet

How to Search and Verify Content

Many employees complain their enterprise search doesn’t work, but often they also need to brush up their search skills. In particular, faceted search helps to refine large results sets into small ones. Unlike web search, enterprise search often deals with data sets where terms greatly overlap. If your company makes cheese, any search using “cheese sales figures” will have many hits. You need to use faceted search to narrow results by, say, date, location and file type to retrieve a recent spreadsheet of sales in France.

A second search skill is the ability to meaningfully assess if a search result is reliable. The equivalent of spotting fake news on the internet is recognizing that a policy shared on Yammer is not as trustworthy as one in the HR document management system.

Once people grasp this, they are more likely to use good metadata habits when sharing their own content too.

Related Article: Asking the Right Questions: Query Expansion in Enterprise Search

Data Analytics

UK retailer Marks and Spencer has launched an "M&S Data Academy," encouraging employees to enroll in training for data science skills. The company recognizes that business is becoming deeply data-driven, but this is only of value if staff are equipped to correctly interpret and act on results.

Marketing, HR, Communications, Manufacturing and Facilities will all be changing as it becomes possible to make more evidence-based decisions. However, we know how easy it is to create dashboards and KPIs that overwhelm people. Without suitable skills, people will revert to gut feel, or, in time, accept AI-driven recommendations without checking if they really make sense.

Citizen Development

Citizen development is about any employee being able to create applications. This no longer requires programming skills, just a logical approach to breaking down a problem. Even better, because citizen developers deeply understand the problem to solve, it is easy for them to iterate and refine the solution quickly.

For example, a security guard at Heathrow Airport decided to teach himself how to create Microsoft Power Apps (see Samit Saini's PowerApps journey at Heathrow). He replaced several paper forms with simple apps, saving hundreds of hours in administration.  

Of all the skills listed here, this is the least likely to be widespread. But for employers who cultivate it, the impact can be huge. Heathrow estimate Saini saved $460,000 in potential app costs. That’s enough to justify anyone’s training budget for digital skills.