As we move into a reality where digital skills dominate and the pandemic has pushed many organizations to accelerate their digital transitions, a yawning skills gap has become apparent: Fewer than a third of digital leaders rate themselves as “effective in digital acumen” according to the DDI Global Leadership Forecast.

But HR and leaders rank digital acumen, which is seen as “a significant predictor not only for digital transformation readiness, but also for innovation and responding to the competitive environment,” as a must-have skill, the DDI report said.

This gap is bad for business. “The world’s most digitally mature companies lead all other companies in value creation. They also have proved much more resilient during the crisis,” research by the Boston Consulting Group found.

The future is digital …

A Coursera report, Job Skills of 2022, anticipates creation of 149 million new technology-oriented jobs by 2025—and, the report said, most employers (62%) “have made a formal effort to move toward skills-first hiring.”

Chief among these are digital skills, and the report provides a helpful definition: “UNESCO12 defines digital skills as ‘a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information.’ Digital skills can incorporate everything from social media to cybersecurity, and are increasingly central to a thriving workforce, particularly as businesses have accelerated digital transformation in response to the pandemic. The term ‘digital skills’ is often used interchangeably with ‘technology’ and ‘technical’ skills.”

To build, support, and lead teams in the digital future, leaders must both up their own digital game and ensure that their employees, especially future leaders, develop and hone essential digital skills, including becoming comfortable gathering, exploring, and communicating about data.

“Data today is both a driver of business strategies and, perhaps most importantly, a medium of communication,” the Coursera report stated. “As digital transformation leads to increased volumes of workplace data, how that data is shared, presented, and analyzed is of growing importance to businesses.”

… But leaders lack key digital skills

Digital acumen is not the only area where executives lack essential skills for the future. “Fewer than one in five leaders rated themselves effective in leading virtual teams, which has quickly become essential”; similarly, only 20% feel that their organizations are prepared for digital transformation, according to DDI—although those organizations may be in the midst of that very transition.

Significantly, the DDI report said, fewer than 30% of leaders surveyed had ever received development for digital acumen or virtual leadership skills.

Forbes underscores the need for leaders to become digitally savvy: “Executives are not above or insulated from personal digital transformation. And they can’t lead digital value creation in the new world unless they are versed and competent in doing so. More so, they can’t lead or expect managers to lead teams in a hybrid world if they’re inexperienced. Empathetic leadership starts with understanding what it takes to engage employees and inspire them to excel in this new world and adapting how someone leads accordingly,” Forbes contributor Brian Solis wrote.

Despite the urgent need for digital skills among leaders, Solis cites research from MIT’s Sloan School of Management that found that “only 23% of CEOs are considered digitally savvy. And just 7% of large companies currently employ digitally savvy executive teams."

A role for learning leaders

A “love of learning” is touted as a potential remedy in “The CIO agenda for the next 12 months,” from McKinsey Digital. “Businesses that are architected to learn and adapt at speed—whether learning a new coding language, using tech to develop a new business model, integrating a new technology, or adopting a new methodology—will be those that succeed.”

The article describes an “expansive view of learning” that includes anticipating skills that will be needed and proactively developing them, reskilling workers with “adjacent” skills—skills that might enable them to expand current job roles or take on new ones—and partnering with external organizations to upskill and develop employees. It also suggests “creating a learning architecture that allows people to easily learn and share, commenting that “Digital leaders, in fact, share test-and-learn findings across their organization far more often than their peers.”

Emphasizing the need to include executives as they encourage digital skills literacy, McKinsey points out, “The degree to which nontech people in the business, from the CEO and board members to sales reps on the frontlines, understand how to use tech will also have a determining effect on how well businesses generate value. For this reason, CIOs need to make tech literacy a priority across the business.”

Knowledge@Wharton lays out specific digitally-focused roles for every member of the C-suite, from the chief financial officer leveraging AI to streamline financial processes to the chief operating officer needing to know how to adapt systems and processes and the chief legal officer, who will shape digital policy and guidelines. Learning leaders need to be aware of these roles and prepared to guide leaders in developing the skills they need to lead, thrive, and innovate in the digital age.

Keep up with changing demands of learning leadership

The set of skills and knowledge learning leaders need is constantly evolving. The Learning Guild’s newest eBook, “Level Up: Preparing for a New Learning Leadership Paradigm,” explores the emerging leadership paradigm and the associated skills and behaviors. The eBook is free to Learning Guild members.

To learn more, join us at the upcoming Learning Leaders Online Forum, March 16–17, 2022, which will take a deep dive into challenges learning leaders are facing and share strategies for meeting those challenges.