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Close the digital skills gap and gain the talent edge - lessons from diginomica's diversity coverage

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 19, 2018
It's easy for workplace diversity to become a useless, feel good cliché. But there are field lessons and data that should be reckoned with. Here's my review of diginomica's recent diversity coverage.

Workplace diversity coverage isn't easy. How do you extract themes you can apply to your own projects? Diversity is highly personal and tied to work cultures. Yes, the tech industry has a diversity problem, but what works in one situation might not fly in another.

Still, there are surprising skills and talent lessons to be learned. Here's my review of diginomica's recent diversity pieces - with takeaways all enterprises should consider.

1. Closing the digital skills gap requires a change in recruitment and hiring

In Closing the digital skills gap – more effort required, Janine Milne cited data on the persistence of the digital skills gap. From a LinkedIn/Capgemini survey:

  • 54% of the 1,200 global respondents believed the digital talent gap is hampering digital transformation and competitiveness in their firms.

Another is the rising "soft skills" premium:

  • Soft digital skills (59%) such as being customer-focused and having a passion for learning are harder to come by than hard digital skills (51%).

To close that gap, employers must get creative on hiring. They must tap into new hiring pools, whether its encouraging returners to the workplace, or better college recruitment. As Cath Everett wrote in her diginomica series on managing the returners, women (and some men) who take extended time away from work for childrearing face obstacles getting back on track. "Returnships" allow employers to update skills for talent they've previously excluded.

Janine quotes Capgemini about the power of reaching beyond tech into liberal arts backgrounds:

The more diverse we are in the talent space, the more diversity we get in many, many ways, such as their thinking styles.

2. AI in the workplace is shifting the skills power balance

I've been clamoring about soft skills for a couple decades now; the impact of emotional intelligence at work is hardly new. But as Cath Everett wrote in AI in the workplace - a female perspective, AI is now turning soft skills into an imperative. That changes what skills we value - and devalue. Everett quotes Seymourpowell's Mariel Brown:

Soft skills will undoubtedly be more important in the age of AI. AI’s strength is in undertaking repetitive, predictable tasks at scale and velocity – so mining big data speedily. But human strengths are about being creative in an original way.

Everett adds:

Other important differentiators will also be the ability to communicate effectively and to empathise, in other words, using people skills that enable individuals to read complex human emotions quickly when undertaking negotiations, for instance.

But here's the twist: these skills have historically been devalued and/or associated with female workers:

Interestingly though, such aptitudes, which have historically been undervalued in the workplace but are now in the ascendancy, have traditionally been associated with women. Manual skills whose value is now in decline, on the other hand, have traditionally been considered the domain of men.

Could this AI twist on gendered work assumptions shift our work culture and makeup? Time will tell. But it's a potent example of why diversity is everyone's issue to confront.

3. Keeping our identities closeted is a drag on productivity

It makes intuitive sense that our professional lives are more fulfilling when we can be open about sexual identity. But as Jessica Twentyman reported in GE Digital’s Deborah Sherry - why diversity and equality add up to productivity, there is a growing body of evidence that closeting our identities hurts workplace productivity. She quotes Deborah Sherry, senior vice president and chief commercial officer at GE Digital:

There’s an overwhelming body of evidence out there that shows that, when you’re able to bring your whole self to work and be open about who you are, you’re much more productive. For people to be successful in their jobs, they need to be themselves. Openness, happiness and output are strongly aligned.

Sherry's "whole self to work" phrase is the kicker. "Closeted" has a connection to sexual identity; it's certainly a big issue for LGBTQ workers. But the "closeted" aspect of an intolerent workplace goes way beyond sexual identity. As I wrote in The accounting field confronts workplace diversity - data and reflections from Xerocon:

Expanding the discussion/practice of diversity beyond the gender, ethnic and sexual orientation categories can cross barriers of resistance. An expanded definition of diversity helps people to surface their own differences in ways that build empathy – and provoke new viewpoints.

4. Diversity is about use cases, not one-size-fits-all proclamations

CA Technologies recognized that improving diversity would aid in talent recruiting/retention. In How CA Technologies ensures diversity and inclusion thrive, Everett gets into how CA technologies upped its game.

One key? Formal programs - not happy talk or lofty goals without structure. Four years ago, CA Technologies set up a global inclusion program called Thrive. The goals: boost internal awareness and “build momentum” for diversity and inclusion throughout the company. Everett quotes Sue Henley, the company’s Head of Talent Development, Education & Diversity for EMEA:

It’s about changing the way the culture behaves to attract the best, keep them here and develop them in a way that meets their career goals. The idea is that, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’re always going to get what you’ve always got, and you’ll never affect change.

Everett also gets Henley's take on using data to assess diversity gaps. And: the pros/cons of quotas or diversity targets. In A look at how ThoughtWorks supports LGBTQ employees - a lesson on inclusion, Everett shows that even an organization committed to social justice has its own internal diversity challenges. Changes to the company included gender-neutral language and gender-neutral toilet facilities.

Such changes might not be top of mind for all organizations. What stands out here is that employee views were polled and acted upon. Everett quotes ThoughtWorks' Amy Lynch:

When we moved to our new office in Manchester, we already had an engaged group to ask ‘what do you feel should be included in this workspace?’ They said ‘it needs to be welcoming and generate a sense of belonging so we need gender-neutral toilets, a place for people to pray and access for wheelchairs’. So our internal group is important in helping to shape policies and to look internally at how we can do things differently.

The wrap - lots of inequality to overcome

I hope I haven't minimized the adversity ahead. Every day we don't take action on such issues, we are falling behind. That means some days, frankly, are failures, and I'm including myself in that.

You can expect diginomica to hit on the "not enough progress" angle as well. Over on diginomica government, Madeline Bennett's Highlighting our worst fears: Shocking lack of equality and fairness in tech is a recent example of what we should call an appalling lack of progress from the tech industry as a whole.

Yes, we've done a much better job of making the business case for diversity (see my piece, How SAP Business Beyond Bias productizes inclusive processes within SuccessFactors - an illustrated review, for more stats on that). But as Bennett says, too often diversity is just a buzzword and nothing else. Check these demoralizing stats:

The Diversity in IT 2017 report reveals some truly shocking statistics about the state of the UK IT workforce. Here is a small selection of ones that I found particularly depressing:

  • In 2016, 51% of the UK population aged 16-plus were women, yet only 17% of IT specialists were female
  • 23% of over-16s had a disability, compared to only eight percent of IT workers
  • 45% were aged 50-plus, versus 21% in the IT industry
  • Women earned 15% less respectively than their non-minority counterparts
  • People with a disability were paid 16% less respectively

I could go on, and it's not just the UK of course - I have more of those types of stats here. Why we're in this situation when there is such a good business case to do otherwise is a troubling question indeed. You can expect the diginomica team to press ahead on this in 2018. If you have examples you think we should look into, let us know in the comments, or ping one of us directly.

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