asking a question during a meeting
PHOTO: Headway

We should ‘just know’ how to use the digital workplace, right? After all, our personal lives are now technologically-immersed and hyper-connected, to the extent that many adults reportedly spend up to five hours per day on mobile devices.

The reality in organizations, however, paints a different picture. Digital workplaces are often sprawling and fragmented behemoths with quirks and workarounds lurking around every corner. Even where parts of the digital workplace are optimized, doing better than just digitally surviving at work requires a raft of digital skills that go beyond the realms of what we may need for consumer devices, apps and interactions.

Poor Digital Skills, a Multi-Generational Issue

And therein rests a problem. Large digital skills research projects, for example from the OECD and European Commission, are throwing up red flags about the state of digital skills in the workforce. In 2016, the OECD reported that on average only around 31.1 percent of the population of participating countries demonstrate more than basic abilities in core information and communications technology and problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments, and just 5.4 percent have advanced skills.

Taken in context of research findings from the MIT Center for Digital Business and Capgemini that 77 percent of organizations consider missing digital skills as a key hurdle to their digital transformation, this state of affairs suggests an alarming picture. One in which the hoped for ‘digital dexterity’ relating to both the operational and customer experience aspects of the organization are being harmed by a lack of fluency in employees’ use of digital tools.

It’s an issue that applies to younger workers too, in spite of their digital savviness. A Capgemini study found 47 percent of senior decision makers do not believe these younger workers know how to use digital tools for work purposes. This research is not alone in suggesting that growing up with digital technologies does not automatically lead to proficiency in how to use them within a work context.

Efforts to Address the Digital Skills Gap Are Falling Short

While organizations are investing vast amounts into the digital workplace (one estimate suggests the digital workplace transformation market will grow to $18.06 billion by 2021), they appear to be doing much less relative to the digital readiness of the workforce. In fact, the aforementioned European Commission study found that 88 percent of organizations have not taken any action to tackle the lack of digital skills of their employees.

The onus is firmly on organizations to take the initiative in digitally preparing their workforce to thrive in the digital world of work. In fact, according to MIT research, 70 percent of employees expect their organizations to help them develop the skills to thrive in a digital environment, but only 42 percent believe this currently occurs.

Organizations taking a proactive approach to digitally upskilling the workforce, for instance Cancer Research UK and Scottish Government, are part of a small but inspiring vanguard that others urgently need to follow. As interest within the digital workplace industry in the digital readiness of the workforce grows, it’s exciting to see organizations such the Digital Workplace Group prioritizing the topic in its 2018 Research Programme.

Introducing a Framework for Digital Skills in the Workplace

With this context in mind, my own research and work in the fields of both the digital workplace and digital literacy led me to develop an in-depth Digital Workplace Skills Framework that organizations can leverage to start addressing these issues. Building on work done by digital literacy researchers such as Alexander Van Deursen and Yoram Eshet, it applies a digital workplace lens to the wide array of skills needed to digitally participate in modern society, structuring them into four key areas:

digital workplace skills framework

The framework is aimed as a tool to help organizations develop an understanding of the current skills, approaches and mindsets of the workforce, and underpin the design of approaches to improve the digital readiness of the organization.

It is worth highlighting that digitally upskilling the workforce should not be seen as an antidote for poorly conceived, designed or delivered digital workplace
tools — in this respect, digital literacy is just one aspect (albeit a critical one) of a good practice program that will enable successful digital workplace
transformation. Such programs involve a wider picture including developing strategy, managing content and engaging users.

Assessing the Current Digital Readiness of the Workforce

A program of research on the digital skills of the workforce should use a mix of techniques such as qualitative interviews and focus groups, as well as a quantitative survey. Once a clear understanding of the current digital literacy of the workforce has been established, using the framework to assess all relevant skill areas, this information can be used to develop interventions to help employees tailored to the specific needs of particular roles or groups. This should be done with reference to digital goals and strategies that set out a clear view of what the organization is trying to achieve in terms of its digital workplace, and what capabilities within the workforce are critical to enable them.

With regard to digital skills interventions, one size will most definitely not fit all. Individuals working in different roles, departments, levels of seniority or even industries and those from different demographics will need support and encouragement in different areas. The framework provides a broad view of required skills, as a starting point for organizations to hone in on what is most relevant. Nevertheless, as we have already seen, being digitally literate requires a broad range of skills and focusing narrowly on only a few areas may hamper progress.

Where is your organization at with enabling digital skills in the workforce? What are your next steps to ensure that the workforce is digitally ready?