Learning trends

Why yesterday’s skills and development strategies aren’t enough to survive today’s digital transformation

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Digital strategy

This article was originally published on Trainingindustry.com

Organizations today are faced with a disruption that is nothing short of historic. Digital technologies have steadily been making their way into organizations and now impact every facet of organizational behavior, both externally and internally. And the digital transformation is just beginning: by 2018, 50% of all business process jobs will have disappeared and digital jobs will increase by 500% [1].  Yet despite the omnipresence of digital technologies in organizations today, statistics reveal that the people working in them are unprepared. Nearly 40% of workers in the E.U. lack digital skills and 14% have none [2]. In the U.S., an estimated 60M people are shut off from jobs because of a lack of digital skills: nearly 20% of American adults do not use the Internet at home, work, or at school, or by mobile device [3]. In the U.K., 6M citizens have never used the internet and 9.5M lack adequate digital skills [4]. Organizations have no choice but to rethink the way they develop their people and their talent in order to stay afloat in this tidal wave of change.

Progress generates a skills gap

The digital transformation can easily be compared to the Industrial Revolution. Digital technologies have afforded organizations with opportunities to boost performance and efficiency that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable. For example, geographically dispersed teams on opposite sides of the globe now have the opportunity to collaborate and innovate in real time, while big data can be analyzed to identify which talent is at risk of leaving the organization. However, despite these opportunities, organizations themselves are unsure about how to embrace this change and to unleash the full potential digital technologies offer.

Perhaps the biggest impact the digital transformation has had affects the people themselves who make up organizations. Like the Industrial Revolution, the digital disruption has reached societal proportions, causing anxiety, fear and a heightened level of uncertaintyinsecurityregarding the future. In 1675, when machine looms began to replace handloom weaving, a three-day riot broke out in England, during which groups of weavers destroyed the machines that had begun to replace their jobs. And while these machines presented inestimable advantages for performance and efficiency, the people who lived at that time had to either adapt to this change, or risked being left jobless. As history illustrates, technological progress will prevail. Therefore, rather than resisting the digital transformation, people and organizations need to prepare immediately and strategically for a skillset that will perpetually change and evolve

Learning for life

To master perpetual change, both people and organizations must consider learning and development as a never-ending cycle of continuous improvement. Contrary to even a decade ago, a college degree is no longer sufficient to secure the skills needed to build a lifelong career. The 21st century workplace is built on changing skills that require lifelong learning and development: not doing so will result in planned obsolescence. An individual who stops learning is endangering his/her career. More preoccupying still, what is true for people is also true for businesses: companies who are not ready or unwilling to become learning organizations will not survive in the era of digital transformation.

To complicate matters, the way people learn and develop skills has also been greatly impacted by digital technologies. Learning today is less and less about reserving an hour of training than about consuming short bursts on the go. Traditional didactic models have become incompatible with new working habits: people simply cannot cut themselves off and concentrate for long periods of time. Learning is now happening on a subway platform, on a plane, in a taxi; as such, contemporary learners expect learning experiences to be quick, engaging and immediately useful.  In addition, organizations can no longer adopt only a top-down approach when it comes to development. Instead, they need to focus more on empowering their staff to develop themselves and each other by providing them with the tools, framework and autonomy to do so.

Digital literacy

Acquiring a solid range of digital skills is of utmost importance for people and organizations. Many organizations, in an effort to join the race toward digital transformation, have chosen to train their staff members to use software. While developing such technical skills is a laudable decision, teaching a staff member which button to push to create a bar chart in a spreadsheet or how to electronically sign a document is just not enough. If an organization’s goal is to make its employees digitally literate, simply training them to operate different types of software only addresses part of the problem. In a word, it is as if these organizations were giving their staff one shoe to wear instead of two.

Instead, the skillset required to survive the digital transformation requires a more holistic approach in order to create sustainable value. Academic research generally defines digital literacy as the interdependence of three or more interdisciplinary skill subsets that must work in harmony. Of particular importance, Warschauer and Matuchniak identify these interdisciplinary skillsets as 1. Information, media and technology skills 2. Learning and innovation skills 3. Life and career skills [6]. This categorization reflects that of Jenkins et al. and further insists that digital literacy is multi-faceted and not simply the mastery of computer or technology skills [7]. Eshet-Alkalai notably underlines that. Digital literacy involves more than the mere ability to use software or operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex cognitive, motor, sociological, and emotional skills, which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments [8].

Designing a strategy

When designing a corporate development strategy to achieve digital literacy, five key characteristics can be highlighted, beginning with the letter “C”. First, a development program should target skills that are complementary, in the sense that technical skills, functional skills and behavioral skills work together. Learning strategies must focus on “how subjects are interconnected” [9]. To be a good driver, one has to know how to ignite the engine (technical skill), but also how to analyze traffic density or map out the fastest route (functional skills) as well as the ability to slow down if roads are wet (behavioral skill). Because all of these skills are interdependent, they should be learned and acquired simultaneously. And like learning to drive, these skillsets should be addressed in a concurrent manner, “all infused into core content as both process and outcome” [10].

Similarly, the skillsets underpinning digital literacy depend on and change according to the specific context in which they are used. Consider a videoconference: the interactions occurring in a small group of 4 people who know each other would be very different from those involving 12 strangers. While the relevant technical skills may be the same in both settings (i.e. mastery of the relevant software to hold a videoconference), the functional and behavioral skills required would certainly be different. The way a videoconference is organized and managed depends on several specific parameters (number of people, type of interaction, physical situation, etc.) and therefore the targeted skillsets should be contextualized. Digital literacy, therefore, is the delicate interplay and mastery of all these skill groups in a variety of contexts, not only one. Like driving a car, it is not by mastering the technical, functional and behavioral skills in one context that means the driver is skilled; instead, it is by mastering the ensemble of all these subskills in various environments that makes a good driver.

Next, when designing a development strategy it is essential to consider the changing nature of learner expectations to optimize engagement based on collaboration.  Brown underlines “a shift between using technology to support the individual to using technology to support relationships between individuals. With that shift, we will discover new tools and social protocols that help us help each other, which is the very essence of social learning” [11].Taylor and Parsons also suggest

we need to change how we teach as well as what we teach if we are to engage learnersmoving from didactic to constructivist pedagogy. Constructivist instruction requires strong respectful relationships and safe learning environments, especially as teacher-student relationships shift from expert-disciple towards peer-based collaborative learning [10].

Finally, digital tools come and go quickly. They evolve and incorporate new features regularly (think about the number of versions of Microsoft Office released in the past decade) and if a training program is intended to bridge this digital skills gap sustainably, learning cannot be a one-time affair. Training targeting digital literacy must be permanent and evolve continuously.

The new paradigm for learning and development in the 21st century is indeed very different from former models in the sense that organizations must not only address what people learn, but also how. It is by designing sound strategies that integrate changing needs in both content and delivery that true digital transformation can begin to happen.