Digital skills - who needs them?

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks October 29, 2015
There is much said about the need for everyone to have digital skills, but a panel at the recent VMworld conference showed that it is far less relevant to the ever-present need for innovation than many would have us believe.

new skills
Conferences like the recent VMworld in Barcelona spawn many fringe sessions - some seriously techie for the rocket-science delegates, and some more focused on softer issues, such as the need - or otherwise - for specifically training people in digital skills', and what form that should take.

However, what could have been a gentle hour of diversion from the main thrust of VMware's message-fest turned into a rather interesting debate. It all but decided that trying to develop digital skills in staff - and other users of the technology - was already a lost cause rather than a 'cutting edge' issue where getting any traction at all was the all-important objective.

The session occurred was chaired by Sue Holly-Rodway, Senior Director for Federation on Skills with VMware, ably supported by Joe Baguley, the company's ever-present CTO for EMEA, Matt Crosby, the Head of Expertise at the Hay Group and Per Brantsing Karlsson,  CIO of Akademiska Hus.

The panel was hinged around some recent research conducted by VMware on the current level of, and expected requirements for, digital skills amongst business users. For the record, 'digital skills' was defined as the ability to use technology to use, share and improve data that is used for work.

What emerged in the discussion, at an early stage, was the fact that the rapid growth of the cloud was more of a fundamental gamer changer than might be imagined. Its emphasis on the demotion of technology as the ìmportant' part of IT and the elevation of what adds capability and value to the role of staff as end user is opening up the serious question as to whether expecting them to have digital skills is an appropriate way of considering their needs. As Baguley observed:

Digital skills is no longer about coding. Now, for the typical user in business, it starts with the ability to open a laptop and get on the WiFi.

At first this may seem to be at odds with some of the research findings, such as that a large minority, 46%, indicated that they felt they wer not being digitally enabled enough.

But in practice it would seem that some of that feeling was more attached to staff understanding the technologies they were expected to work with. As Baguley noted, many companies are not able to exploit the skills that their staff already have available:

Corporate IT is now very much stuck in the past. The question corporate business managers need to be asking themselves now is, 'How can I get my staff to change me and my business for the better?'.

Legacy baggage

This raises an important point that highlights the change that come as the baggage associated with the cloud. Most enterprises are operating with IT systems that can be classed as legacy.

For a start, most of them are based on technologies that involved £millions investment and took up to three years - maybe more - to develop to the point where they entered production. That is an environment where people having the appropriate digital skills is absolutely necessary.

But today the situation is very different. For a start, project developments are smaller and have a much shorter development cycle. Indeed the whole lifecycle of an application can be just a fraction of the development time along for an old legacy application. The investment can be measured in hundreds, not thousands, of 'pick-a-currency'  and the application can be developed, deployed, generated a return and put out to grass in just a few weeks.

The question that follows this then is simple -  have we already reached the stage where acquiring digital skills is largely irrelevant for the majority of staff in businesses? They have the digital skills, they just need the freedom and encouragement to go and exploit them within the framework of the business they work in. Baguley concluded:

What is needed now is a call to action amongst business leaders. There is now need for them to learn to tolerate, even celebrate, failure. It is time for that cultural change.

My take

It is rare that innovation comes from a core technology development. Rather, it comes from having a mindset that sees connections in the ways that technologies can be used and pulled together.

That is what is needed now. There is enough technology available to engineer whatever someone wants it to do, so the key now is to have people with the wit and flair to experiment, coupled to a work environment where such experimentation is welcomed and encouraged. In that environment, having digital skills in hardly relevant.

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