Dug Campbell

Digital Skills That Pay The Bills

Practice makes perfect
Practice makes perfect

As technology continues to develop, it’s fascinating to watch how people react to enforced changes in the workplace as a result. Some actively try to keep abreast of developments whilst others remain passionately focused on ignoring anything that is not directly relevant (as they see it) to the functions of their daily job. But whilst arguments vary as to how quickly those changes are taking place, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re developing a skills gap in the country.

The vital importance of the UK’s digital sector

Economic forecasts from the Boston Consulting Group predict that the digital sector will contribute £225 billion to the UK economy by 2016. To put that in perspective, that’s up from £121 billion in 2010.

With numbers that large, it can be hard to grasp what they mean in practice. So it’s maybe useful to consider one statistic in particular: how much the internet contributes to UK GDP when compared to other European countries. When the UK has been identified as ‘the most internet-based major economy‘, it’s a safe bet to assume that we face greater potential opportunities than many other places – for example, UK citizens spend on average £1,083 per year on online shopping, compared to say those in France (who spend £487 p.a.). I don’t think that we’re a country that’s so far ahead of our peers competitively that we can afford to ignore the kind of opportunity that comes from this level of online activity.

Recently the CEO of O2, Ronan Dunne, wrote an article that was widely shared online about ensuring that we build a workforce that’s fit for the digital age. With the UK economy now starting to turn the corner, it seems to me this is a pretty significant issue for us all going forwards. He argues that we should be looking at developing three areas in particular.

1. Digital infrastructure

Using technology that helps people be increasingly flexible about how and where they work has obvious advantages whilst the decreasing cost of more efficient technologies can help to protect jobs that are currently threatened by cost-cutting.

2. Digital transparency

Most people are aware to some extent of the upcoming privacy battles in the technology industry. For example, I’ve previously touched on the challenges that the widespread adoption of Google Glass might represent and there are other key areas as the number of devices that connect to the web via the internet of things increase that will continue to create challenges for us all. However, Roan argues:-

“If we are to make the most of the big data opportunity, business and government need to take collective responsibility for helping the public to better understand the value exchange

I think this is a key point. If you’re running a business, it’s up to you alone to convince your customers that by choosing (and that choice is the key) to share their valuable personal information with you, they will be rewarded with a far more efficient and enjoyable shopping experience as a result. For every modern business, it’s my view that building that trust by continually ‘getting it right’ (for which read not assuming that a customer has somehow given implied approval to your intrusive and unwanted marketing campaigns) is absolutely crucial for long-term success.

Of course, others have varying views. You might subscribe to the Zuckerberg belief that the age of privacy is over or disagree on principle with any privacy statements that are uttered by anyone who has a financial interest in the outcome.

Or perhaps it’s not quite that simple. J P Rangaswami, Chief Scientist at Salesforce, gave a fantastically powerful talk at the recent Turing Festival in which he reminded everyone that in the days before the costs of mass migration dropped and people became strangers to their neighbours, it was entirely normal to only ever buy goods and services from people that you knew personally, where privacy was no big deal. It’s a source of conflict but, whatever the outcome, there’s no denying that as more commerce (and real life) is conducted using technology, these issues will only get more acute.

3. Digital literacy

Yet it’s this final point that was the original reason for this meandering blog post. For the country to make genuine headway and grasp the opportunities that lie ahead, we need to get the talent in place. And the incredible thing is – for the most part, that talent’s available already. We’re just not using it properly.

It might be a truism to say that many young people in the country already have many of the digital skills that are necessary to fill the gaps that will become more acute with each passing month. But it’s a truism because, quite frankly, it’s true. In May to July 2013, 960,000 young people aged 16-24 were unemployed. When many current business leaders are struggling to keep up with the pace of change, it’s hard to believe that many of those digital natives don’t possess exactly the type of digital skills that are going to be increasingly required by businesses in the developing environment.

Who’s Going To Lead The Charge?

But who’s going to stand up and take responsibility for this? As Simon Devonshire writes on his blog:-

“If we believe it is Government, then exactly which Minister is accountable for the digital transformation of the economy? I don’t think we have one. I’m not aware that the Bank of England has anyone focused on understanding the economic impact of the internet, despite the UK’s lead of e-commerce as a percentage of GDP. Universities offer computer science education, but that is only one of the ingredients necessary to realise the digital opportunity”

We’re in real danger of losing ground here by sitting back and relying on others to make the necessary changes. Some progress is being made — for example, the decision to make coding (sort of) compulsory in UK schools from 2014. But at the same time, we can’t assume that the current system of education was developed many years ago with the best structure to deliver this. I’ve mentioned the quote on this blog that “65% of kids at school today will end up in jobs that have not yet been invented”. Parents could do worse than helping their kids to learn coding at an early age. Not sure where to start? Check out CodeAcademy or another option on this list of resources for inspiration.

But it will take more than this.

We Need A Culture of Curiosity

As the demand for workers with digital skills is exploding, we need to train the young to learn the skills that will make them employable over the coming years whilst working hard to fill existing skills gaps in businesses today with those who are currently desperate for a job.

When you consider that the Internet has only been around (in broad terms) for thirty years or so, it’s important to remember that every single one of us – from the executive who understands no more than simple email to the most advanced coder – has been a learner at some point. As Gillian Andrews writes in her blog:-

“Part of what needs to be learned is how to learn, over and over again. Simply learning where the button is for ‘cut’ or ‘undo’ is not enough.”

To me it seems that it’s not necessarily about teaching the skills quite so much as ensuring that we each develop the curiosity that’s required to adopt a mentality where we’re all hungry to learn. Each and every day. And that responsibility falls squarely on each of our shoulders as individuals.

If you’ve got any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them.



photo credit: rolvr_comp via cc

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