The Digital Skills Gap - How it can harm business and how to make sure it doesn't harm yours

Finding the right digital skills to deliver business results is becoming more difficult – Fact.  Training establishments are finding it harder and harder to keep up to date with client needs. The discussion around who should lead the digital agenda within the business is fuelling huge debate and there is a recognised but fundamental gap on the educational side to enable existing and new employees to deliver on this digital promise.

Let’s look at where the digital gaps are within business:

  • Right at the top.  There is the skill at the top – it’s more to do with understanding but it’s still as important as any other area.  Digital Leadership is needed within every business.
  • Digital Management.  Then there is digital skill at a management level…those who require an on-going understanding of what is going on, what is working, what success looks like and the drive to experiment…the person who is able to know what data matters and how to make it matter.
  • Then there are the specialist digital skills areas – those individuals who have specific skills in a particular digital discipline.  With the speed at which our digital lives are changing and our demands as consumers are changing, it’s becoming harder and harder for businesses to seek out the talent they need.

The real challenge ahead

There is a real challenge here.  A challenge, which is impacted by the changing digital landscape demanding different needs around every corner.  And, with the maturity of digital channels like social media, the skills gap further increases as you realise it’s no longer just about a social media manager, you need specialist data analysts, sentiment and outreach specialists, content creators, curators and commenters…integration managers. New skills are needed to understand and recognise how digital channels mature and usage changes. Skills to deal with new technologies that allow us to better understand the business value of these channels.  And finally broader skills and understanding to recognise and address the mass migration of digital channels out of marketing and into the business as a whole.

The solution, though not an easy one, can be split into two key areas: Skills and Understanding.  First and foremost a solid understanding of the digital landscape and its value to the business is needed at the very top of the business.  As important as access to the skills required is the knowledge and understanding of what skills are required, and this has to come from the very top.

The challenge from a business perspective:

1) Right at the top:  How do you bring a senior team up to speed on the real impact of digital? Not just in terms of it’s value, but the reality of the time, resource and financial commitment required to reap the benefits of it.  Often a lack of understanding at a leadership, even a board level breeds misconceptions to how digital works.  That it is pretty easy so key investment is at the lower end of the scale, or that agile means doing things quicker and cheaper to achieve instant results requires less headcount.  Well, digital skills don’t come cheap anymore; it’s not about placing a 20-year-old graduate in front of a computer and calling them the social media manager.  Yes, it’s about bringing young talent who are digital natives on board but not so that they drown, they need a sound digital strategy and direction to follow.  And an agile methodology is best described as one which can ebb and flow with change but remain true to the end goal…this is brilliant for Digital – an area which most certainly changes like the tide with new ways of doing old things and old ways re-engineered.  Digital today most certainly cannot be contained within the silo of one department.  It requires the integrated efforts and teamwork of marketing, technology, operations etc. to succeed and that takes senior digital leadership to achieve.  So remember to start right at the top when addressing your digital skills gaps.

And, a good thing or not, as we mature more into this digital age we live in, we will realise there are so many areas which require dedicated skills and effort to achieve results – data is a case in point – with the dawn of Big Data going mainstream and becoming relevant even to small businesses, access to skills and understanding here become real business needs.

2) Digital Management.  How does a digital leader or a digital manager maintain a level of digital knowledge and understanding which means they can direct, they can manage, they know what they are looking for and what success looks like for their business.  This is a difficult one – it’s arguably the role which should be responsible for the digital business, they should be adept enough to manage up and prove the case for digital.  Then they need to be able to translate this into exactly what resource and technology is needed to achieve results.

The role of a Digital Manager is one, which often get’s left behind at the expense of Digital Leadership roles.  Digital Leadership is the ultimate business champion for the digital agenda across the business.  A Digital Manager has the solid knowledge in terms of delivery and execution to make it happen.

3) The Digital Specialist.  Finally how does the Digital Specialist today know when they become a generalist of tomorrow?  Something quite unique to the digital world is how fast a generalist role needs to be split into specialist areas.  To stick with the example of social media, when it was a fad for some or early adopted by others, the world of social media was owned and managed by the PR or Marketing team.  Very soon after we saw people being employed as social media managers, directors etc, that was about 7 years ago give or take.  This is where many companies still are, but those who have understood the science of social and it’s value to so many different areas of the business have done one of three things – or a combo thereof:  segment out the skills in social media into separate headcount, include the social management for the business within a senior headcount or invest and or employ the services of sophisticated software or skilled agencies.

As each digital area becomes segmented through ease of access, more sophisticated access and data access, there comes the need to have someone capable of harnessing these to gain business advantage.  What’s missing is the recognition of this cycle of change. Training and skills organisations need to be able to deal with this cycle.  There is hope.  We are seeing more and more bite sized training models being adopted by organisations making it easier for courseware to be created – we are also seeing a digital revolution happen in the world of training and development with an increasing amount of individuals seeking to self learn and adopt virtual learning methods.

Back to the question at large.  Knowing the digital age is only set to diversify and segment even further with time, how are we as businesses going to be able to see what’s coming?  Can we plan for it?  Do we simply wait and see?  Well it doesn’t have to be all about wait and see – because if we are unable to grasp the opportunity of digital as and when it arises we are missing something fundamental.

What’s needed is a change.  A big change.  There is talk of social business and how that will change the established business model borne of the industrial revolution forever.  Well, it’s time to also rethink learning and development.  Technology, Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, Management, HR, Finance, Supply Chain, it’s difficult to think of an area of business not affected by the digital revolution.  And each one in it’s own right is demanding access to changing digital skills and changing digitally skilled talent.

What can you do?

Here are our 5 key points to keep you ahead.

1) Make sure your business gets real.  If the commitment and understanding is not there at the top in terms of digital then rethink your strategy.  First and foremost you have to get a level of understanding amongst the most senior members of the organisation.  Digital is a boardroom agenda point.  Make it so.  One very important point to mention here is to ensure that any digital agenda discussed and adopted by your organisation must not start and finish with IT.  It has to include all areas of the business.

2) Get digital metrics or some basic digital KPIs into management reporting – whether it’s customer service, automation, online leads and sales…get the language and the reporting as high up the ladder as possible.

3) Don’t play what we call Recruitment Mousetrap…employing people and skills you ‘think’ you need but don’t really know you need – what will happen is that person will be set for failure unless they are extraordinary individuals.  Recruit when you absolutely know you need that skill and need it on a permanent basis.  Be clear about the level of skill.  A way to dodge the Recruitment Mousetrap game and benefit from accessing the skills you need is to employ people on a project basis, on an interim basis.  Employing temporary staff in a new discipline mitigates the risk of finding out 6 – 12 months down the track you need someone totally different.

A word of caution on recruitment:  When seeking out the a new headcount it has never been more important to define the role to the last detail for specific skills as there is a growing lack of consistency across the talent pool when you measure against roles.  What I am saying is we can’t compare apples with apples anymore.  People’s job titles, skills and experience are increasingly personal to them so you have to invest time to flesh out the job description.

4) Encourage and commit to on-going learning and development.  This is the only way you can keep abreast of what’s going on in digital.  Putting a staff member onto an expensive digital marketing course has its benefits but there is no substitute for on-going development and access to learning materials as and when they are required.  If you employ the services of an agency, investigate what resources they have available to you and your team.  Work with your HR department to rethink the training requirements for your teams to include a mixture of learning methods to suit individual needs as well as access to up to date training.

5) Keep abreast of digital trends.  Things are always changing in digital, as in life, that’s the only constant.  Find ways of staying on top of digital trends.  A simple way to do this is to use one of the content aggregator tools available out there.  They are mostly free:  Swayy, Google Currents, Push, Zite – you can put in the subject areas you want to keep up to date with and they will deliver to your mobile device every time you login.

This isn’t the definitive list of do’s and don’ts to address the digital skills gap – but it’s a start and I hope it helps you by provoking thought if nothing more.

The key is to remember that digital skills apply to three areas of the business.  That what exists today will not be the blueprint for success tomorrow.  Accepting change as a constant and addressing that within your business model will draw far greater success than waiting until it’s too late and your competitor got there before you.

Mel Ross