We recently partnered with Training Industry for an exclusive podcast featuring CrossKnowledge researcher and thought leader, Anja Emonds. Anja was eager to join Taryn DeLong and Sarah Gallo on The Business of Learning, to discuss two very important topics that will be evergreen for 2021 and beyond: the digital skills gap and the emergence of digital leadership.
About our expert: Anja Emonds is a researcher, thought leader, and a PhD candidate with a focus in corporate learning climate and online learning behavior. She advises on learning strategy to help organizations create learning ecosystems and increase the impact of their training platforms via learner engagement, employee motivation and blended learning.
First things first: What is a digital skills gap?
Digital skills are critical for the future, but it is difficult to keep pace with ever-changing market demands. This inevitably creates a digital skills gap, sometimes referred to as digital literacy, digital readiness, or even digital poverty. In other words, it’s the gap between current technical abilities and the constant need for new or updated skills in response to quickly-changing job market demands. It is an increasingly common challenge that can negatively impact employee and team productivity, and often puts organizations at a disadvantage to competitors with a more tech-savvy staff.
Technology is evolving but skills can’t keep up
There are two main challenges to bringing all employees up to the same level of digital literacy. First is the challenge of proper resource allocation. When employees don’t have personal access to digital devices or a reliable Internet connection, communication and training are more difficult, and this creates disparities within the workforce. It can directly impact employee productivity and contribute to frustration and even avoidance when it comes to digital skills. This is especially true when the employee’s role doesn’t require an individual device, putting them at a disadvantage to those who can more easily access training to upskill their digital affinities. This will likely get worse as the market quickens, if resource allocation and training aren’t approached and budgeted in a forward-looking manner. Failure to invest up-front will ultimately hurt a company’s bottom line as digital skills gaps continue to widen.
A multi-generational workforce
The second challenge that contributes to a digital skills gap is having a multi-generational workforce with varying levels of technical knowledge, coupled with a one-size-fits-all training approach. Although the Baby Boomer generation counts such tech luminaries as Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Wozniak, this generation was raised in a tech-free era and many have difficulties or even resistance when it comes to acquiring digital skills. Instead, they might prefer more traditional means of communication, such as phone calls, face-to-face meetings and classroom learning.
Millennials, Generation Z ,and all the generations that follow are extremely comfortable with technology. They find communication via digital devices to be a natural part of their lives. In fact, the more recent generations are so dependent on tech gadgets, they might feel anxious without them! Generation Xers are in a uniquely overlapped position, because they grew up without sophisticated technology, but were gradually introduced to an ever-evolving digital world. This generation is often seen as the most flexible, and might prefer a combination of both digital and in-person communication.
Digital leadership – a new role that’s here to stay
The key to facilitating and supporting the attainment of business goals is through digital leadership. This is a term that you might not be familiar with, but it is one of the emerging trends for 2021 and beyond. Contrary to what you might assume, being a digital leader actually requires a unique skill set compared with traditional leadership roles. The qualities that make a good leader in the traditional workplace don’t always translate well into a pure digital environment. Even a mixed work space (flexible working, for example), requires adaptation that is not always easy for leaders to pull off successfully.
Digital leadership also goes beyond having the latest digital skills. It is, in effect, the merging of 2 skill sets: technological expertise combined with more human qualities such as interpersonal communication, a spirit of collaboration, agility, empathy, and being comfortable as a facilitator outside the spotlight.
Planning ahead, at least for the short term
The most effective way to close a digital skills gap is to first identify the cause(s), and then respond accordingly. L&D in particular should make sure that they offer a blended learning strategy that appeals to a wide range of preferences. They should also be mindful of the technological limitations due to resource allocations at their organization, and make the necessary accommodations (i.e. learning in the flow of work).
Personalized learning is also a proven way to make learning more appealing on both individual and team levels. It will also keep engagement rates high, while facilitating team productivity and supporting business outcomes. Digital leaders can help to offer a boots on the ground view of what’s needed to propel the organization forward by meeting individual learning needs. But digital and all other skills gaps will remain an ongoing challenge to be analyzed and integrated into your annual L&D strategies.