In an edited extract from Digital Governance (Routledge 2020), Jeremy Swinfen Green explores the digital skills that the workforce of the future will need.
Many people fear that digital technology is going to cause mass unemployment as computers take over jobs that people used to do, performing them faster, better, more safely and at a lower cost. And there is no doubt that some jobs will be destroyed by automation.
That’s nothing new. Automation has been happening for several hundred years and during that time, in the UK at least, employment rates have increased rather than decreased. Of course, technology will change the nature of employment. In the United States, farming jobs made up 40 per cent of the workforce in 1900; by 2000 that had dropped to 2 per cent. Similarly, 25 per cent of jobs in 1950 were in manufacturing, this dropped to 10 per cent by 2010. In both cases, new jobs, sometimes in new industries, eventually offset the losses.
Technology will cause short-term challenges as old skills become redundant, and some people find it hard to reskill. But automation, as it gets rid of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, providing people with jobs that create more value, will benefit society. The challenge for employers is ensuring that workers have the skills they need to flourish in a digital economy.
Digital literacy and skills
Digital technology underpins business, and today’s workers need to be digitally literate. This is not always the case, and there is often a need to educate people in the basics of digital technology, beyond using social media and videogames. Workers need to demonstrate digital literacy through a number of skills, including:
• Online learning, the ability to use technology to locate trustworthy resources online and to use that access to learn
• Communication and collaboration, the ability to share complex ideas and work in teams and to collaborate effectively and professionally
• Computational thinking, the ability to collect and analyse data
• Problem solving, the ability to use technology to find or generate innovative solutions that are realistic and effective commercially
These are all skills that any organisation will benefit from. But they need to be backed up by appropriate knowledge. And, with technology changing so rapidly, the knowledge that workers have must change rapidly too.
The truth is that business skills acquired yesterday will be obsolete tomorrow. That’s frightening. And it requires a sea change in the way that many organisations treat training and skills development. It’s no longer sufficient to employ someone with a particular set of skills and expect these to be relevant several decades (or even several years) later. Life-long learning is required.
And in some cases, where jobs simply disappear, workers will need to develop the mental agility to reinvent themselves. For example, a 20-year old lorry driver today will almost certainly need to accept that their job will have ceased to exist by the time they are 40. They will then need the confidence to carve a career using the skills they acquired while driving a lorry to become, perhaps a drone pilot (hand-eye co-ordination), a counsellor (ability to manage stress and loneliness), or something they simply cannot foresee at the moment. Flexibility, a willingness not to be defined by your job, and a hunger to learn new skills constantly, will be essential.
Organisations need digitally skilled employees. But they also need to have strong digital capabilities. An essential organisational capability is knowledge management.
Knowledge (not data as some might say) is the lifeblood of organisations. It can be defined as an understanding, gained by personal experience or tuition (someone else’s experience), of the things that are happening in and to an organisation.
Knowledge is important because if you share it you can help people understand what might happen under a particular set of circumstances. It is much more useful than mere information, which only tells you “what, when and who”. Knowledge can also tell you “why and how” and might even tell you what to do next.
Information is seductive. It easy to store and share, easy to manage. But it isn’t much use. Knowledge, because it includes personal experience, is far less easy to manage but it is much more useful. Therefore, organisations need to think about how they can collect and curate knowledge.
To share knowledge usefully, it must first be expressed by the person who has it, and then recorded and stored in a way that enables people to find it. People can turn their knowledge into shareable assets by talking, drawing, writing or demonstrating. Written assets are simple to store, and digital technology makes them searchable by:
• Identifying words (including names)
• Identifying sentiments that were expressed
• Taking account of context such as dates, places, the meaning of paragraphs (rather than single words) and even slang and irony
Another type of knowledge asset is the spoken word. Technology can help here by translating speech into written documents that can be searched. Technology can even provide some extra analysis by providing insight derived from body language or tone of voice of the speaker.
Videos and drawings are harder to convert into useful assets and may require human intervention to tag them with keywords and descriptions to enable them to be found.
Once the knowledge has been made explicit, it can be curated – sorted, prioritised and described so that other people can find it and use it. Again, technology can help here – for instance, with sorting and describing knowledge – although prioritising its importance effectively is likely to require humans for some time yet.
Employers need to ensure their workforce constantly develops new skills. And they need to ensure that their organisations have the capabilities to encourage the use of new skills and the technology to capture knowledge as it changes. These are significant challenges. But unless they are met, today’s organisations will struggle tomorrow.