Are we placing enough focus on empowering the workforce with the digital skills necessary to take world economies to the next level in the future? And what would such a future look like?

There seems little doubt that the pace of technology change has accelerated. Whereas it took on average 119 years for the spindle to diffuse outside of Europe, the Internet spread across the globe in only seven years. This is according to Oxford Martin School’s latest Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS) report, Technology At Work v2.0: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be. And another Oxford Martin report states that 65% of current jobs in South Africa are susceptible to automation.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), skills development has been recognised as a key component of South Africa’s transformation and economic growth. While many of the workforce in South Africa have a tertiary education, they may not necessarily have the skill-sets that are needed to bridge the digital skills gap. Because of the pace of change in digital technology, their skills may need to be updated to reflect the changes happening in the digital world; from mobile technologies to skills required, to successfully launching new digital products and services, to skills harnessing big data to support strategic decision-making in business. Going forward, as argued in the Citi GPS Disruptive Innovations III report, the cost of innovation continues to fall as cheaper smartphones will help bring four billion more people online. The next stage of connectivity will move from people to ‘things’ with Cisco estimating 500 billion devices will be connected by 2030, up from 13 billion in 2013. Increasing digital connectivity is fuelling a data boom, with data volume estimated to be doubling every 18 months, and computers are likely far better able to handle this volume than people.

The GPS report also states that a growing concern of ‘premature de-industrialisation’ in emerging and developing countries could require new growth models and a need to upskill the workforce.Bearing this in mind, Paul Dunne, Digital Skills Academy CEO, told Achiever in an exclusive interview that the world needs to focus on the digital skills of the workforce or else organisations and countries won’t remain competitive. He says any economy with objectives to increase their knowledge-base industries and to compete in an increasingly digital world needs to have the skills appropriate to achieve these goals. Faced with these statistics above, it’s imperative that digital skills are at the top of the agenda for organisations and world economies. But, there is also a silver lining for those willing to invest in digital skills for their top talent. Those organisations with the skills to manage automation systems will thrive in the coming years, says Dunne.“Looking at the future, the innovators and disrupters in industry ten years from now will be people who are between 10 and 20 years of age. This is a generation who is truly immersed in digital. They were born in the advent of the iPad and iPhone and for them it is natural to have digital technology embedded in their daily lives. This generation won’t have a digital skills gap as we perceive it.”

New technologies and bridging the digital skills gap have the potential to transform productivity in the workplace and Dunne says it’s an exciting time to be living and working in a digital environment.“While new digital technologies such as IoT and VR devices are being integrated at a slow place in most workplaces, in others they have found new vital technological roles in which productivity has been transformed. Examples can be found in the use of drones by Amazon to deliver parcels faster and more efficiently and in medical education, where Google Glass is used to perform live operations for thousands of students across the world and where the learning curve is much quicker and more efficient than traditional methods. Bridging the digital skills gap has proven to have the potential to transform the productivity of organisations worldwide. A recent study by Capgemini Consulting found that digitisation improves productivity and create deeper, more sustainable organisational capabilities. The study also found that firms who invest in upskilling their talent with digital skills are 26% more profitable than their industry competitors and generate 9% more revenue through their employees and physical assets.

In terms of the digital skills gap damaging business and the economy as a whole in South Africa, Dunn says the digital skills gap can negatively affect productivity when the pace of technology outpaces the skill-sets of the workforce using it. Indeed, a recent study by Deloitte states that the rapid pace of technological change in the workplace is leading to a skills half-life of only 2.5 years. To fix the problem organisations need to identify the type of digital skills that will drive productivity and growth for their business type, align these skills with their digital strategy and then facilitate the upskilling of their employees with these high value skills. “Competitiveness’ is the buzz word. Without having talent with the most current and up to date digital skills, South Africa’s businesses cannot compete against more digitally mature competitors. There is a digital ‘gold rush’ for the type of talent that develops new to the market digital products and services and enables serious business growth for organisations. Without this type of talent, South Africa may fall behind economies who are investing heavily in enhancing the digital skills of their top talent.”

And, Dunne says, governments can play a more active role in promoting digital skills development by integrating ICT into the national curriculum and across all areas of teaching and learning. “In tandem with this, Government could implement a range of fiscal supports, grants and aid, to incentivise the development of information technology capabilities within enterprise and on the wider education scheme. Also beneficial is the promotion of strategic partnerships with public, private and voluntary organisations as part of the overall national digital strategy.” 

Take for instance the concept of coding, that did not even exist a few years ago—it is now considered a vital 21st century skill in the workforce. The demand for coding skills far outweighs supply in economies throughout the world. The reason for the rapid growth in demand, says Dunne, is due to the pace of digital innovation and the need for companies to rapidly launch new digital products and services. Mainstream education has also been slow to adopt coding as part of the curriculum. This in turn has led to a lack of coders in the workforce. Yet the question remains, is learning coding skills enough in this fast paced digital world? “Coding is a hugely valuable skillset and demand for qualified programme developers is growing increasingly. Organisations looking to progress globally, and individuals within the field of code, would do well to supplement their skillset with computational thinking. When developed in tandem with coding, the ability to think conceptually in creative ways enables the programmer to design solutions and systems with human behaviour and insights at the forefront. Increasingly, this is a highly coveted skillset,” says Dunne. Looking at the consequences, if businesses do not work harder to scale-up on their employees’ digital skills, Dunne says businesses are challenged with both the difficulty of holding on to their top talent and ensuring that the skill-sets of their employees continue to drive growth for their business.

“In a global marketplace that increasingly requires digital skills and innovation, a digitally skilled workforce is more than a competitive edge. It is a necessity. According to a recent survey conducted by TINYpulse, employees want to continue their professional skills development and career growth. They also stated that a lack of professional development opportunities would contribute to reasons why they would leave their employer. “When company leaders invest in the professional skills development of their employees, they create a culture of empowerment that leads to gains in productivity, employee retention, and makes their organisation better equipped to compete in the new digital marketplace,” he says. On a more positive note, according to Dunne, organisations are beginning to recognise the challenges of the digital skills gap. The MIT Centre for Digital Business has revealed that 77% of companies considered missing digital skills as the key hurdle to their digital transformation. But while they recognise the challenges , many organisations are still not committing to a solution. The two challenges organisations need to overcome include the lack of investment in training programmes and the alignment of digital skills training with a robust digital transformation strategy. In a future world where all businesses are digital businesses, it follows that all workers will be digital workers.

“On the whole, from what I see, South African companies do understand the need to invest in their digital strategies. I am encouraged by what I see as evidence of businesses planning to increase investment in their digital strategies in the next two to three years.” His advice on how organisations can speed up the process of closing the digital skills gap? “In short, we would encourage businesses to prioritise a build versus buy strategy. What we mean by that is that yes, there will be a requirement to hire new staff with the digital skills that are required, however, we would encourage companies, as much as possible, to take and improve the skills base that already exists in the organisation and later-on promote digital skills within existing staff. Our research show this will have a more rapid effect within the organisation compared to hiring new staff. “Organisations looking to develop or progress their digital agenda, can begin to identify the skillsets of existing staff members and provide opportunities to use and improve those skillsets in a number of ways such as through training programmes, by providing financial assistance, or by introducing flexibility into the time and location to allow for training. By providing digital upskilling opportunities the investment in staff training is highly regarded among teams, and their continuous professional development is viewed as a highly coveted means of reward, and as such a tool of retention,” Dunne concludes.

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