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Facing up to the digital economy’s people problem

Organisations are racing to adopt digital innovation as it continues to disrupt those that fail to adapt. But how can they position themselves to embrace new technologies when a rampant skills shortage prevents them from acquiring the right talent?

The digital economy continues to outpace other industries and grow at a rapid, relentless pace. However, an enduring skills gap threatens to hold back digital’s ultimate potential and prevent companies from maximising its value.

According to Deloitte’s recently released Digital Disruption Index, only one in four executives believes their talent pool has the capabilities to deliver their digital strategy. Alarmingly, another report from Accenture claims if G20 countries are unable to close this skills gap, they risk foregoing up to $11.5 trillion in GDP growth in the next ten years.

The UK must continue to invest in digital skills at all levels and companies should adopt a mindset of perpetual learning

People, skills and capability are central to digital transformation, but it is also crucial to ensure that the more traditional principles of change management are not lost. To do this, it’s important organisations are clear on the goal of the transformation.

“Ask yourself, why are we doing this?” says Jason Fowler, human resources director for the UK and Ireland at Japanese tech giant Fujitsu. “Then establish and maintain transparent and candid communication with all of those involved and affected. In doing so, you can stand a better chance of bringing people on the journey with you.”

The biggest challenge with digital transformation is the never-​ending cycle of work. There is always going to be new tech and ways of working, so firms need a resilient, open and collaborative team and culture to stay ahead in this changing landscape.

New skills can be taught and new systems implemented, but crucially an organisation must have a workforce and environment that is open to change. Cultural shifts, however, are one of the most difficult things to achieve. Startups can do it from the start, but established companies face a long journey to building the right culture.

“The most successful teams are hungry to learn and they understand, even at very senior levels, that work in this area is never really done,” says James Potten, managing director of RED Academy, a technology school for developers, designers and digital marketers. “It’s the environment that will nurture the skills which is really important. If we can solve this problem, we’ll futureproof our companies and won’t end up in the same predicament in two, three, five or ten years when everything has changed again.”

The digital skills shortage is a key challenge for large corporations with a recognised brand and weighty recruitment budget, but it’s a different test altogether for small companies without the capital and reach to compete for the talent available.

James Pyser set up an online accountants in 2009 after becoming fed up with using spreadsheets to manage his accounts. Ten years on, inniAccounts is in the top 4 per cent of accountants by revenue, but has faced the constant challenge of finding and recruiting people with both domain knowledge in accounting and skills in digital transformation.

“It’s nearly impossible,” says Mr Pyser. “In the ten years we’ve been operating, I’ve seen thousands of CVs and I’ve never seen a domain expert with digital transformation skills. Of course, you can find people with digital transformation skills and then teach them the domain knowledge, but we’ve found that when you’re competing to recruit against every sort of digital business, it soon becomes hugely costly and time consuming to get someone to the point where they are delivering real value for clients.”

For a growing number of organisations, this democratisation of digital transformation is achieved by low-​code or zero-​code technologies that enable employees with little or no coding skills to contribute to projects which previously required advanced technical knowledge. Such platforms not only enable a more company-​wide approach to digital transformation, but can also accelerate the development of some applications.

“Companies have plenty of people with the right ideas, ambition and desire to innovate, but often they’re ignored or not even encouraged to participate,” says Nick Ford, technology evangelist at the low-​code platform Mendix. “Organisations should look to bring these potential ‘citizen developers’ into the broader business and give them the tools to form more integrated teams that embrace experimentation.”

It’s a long and complex journey to democratise digital skills, not least due to the considerable changes required in people’s mindset. While some may take to it naturally, others are resistant, wary and see it as a risk to their job. When done right, however, employees will see that technology will improve, not curtail, their career.

As the fourth industrial revolution begins to tighten its grasp on organisations around the world, none is safe from digital disruption and therefore closing the digital skills gap is a universal imperative. The UK must continue to invest in digital skills at all levels and companies should adopt a mindset of perpetual learning.