Massive changes in how people work, learn, and communicate have exposed deep gaps in digital skills, while also underscoring the digital divide. These issues are related—and mitigating them has become a top priority for large corporations, particularly those with a global workforce or customer base. Both issues present challenges and opportunities for learning and development (L&D) teams and their leaders.

Understanding the digital divide

Wealthy nations—and wealthy residents of wealthy nations—increasingly rely on technology and internet connectivity to accomplish work and errands, find out information, make appointments, meet with doctors, colleagues, teachers, or friends, and more. The ability to do so relies on:

  • Access to connected devices, like smartphones, laptops, and tablets
  • Access to reliable internet connections that support high-speed transactions and heavy usage
  • Having the skills to use the devices, access the goods and services, and understand the benefits and risks of conducting business and commerce online

Even within wealthy nations like the United States, not everyone has even one, much less all three, of these necessities. When one zooms out to look at the global picture, it quickly becomes obvious that some nations and entire regions of the world lag in access to all three critical factors.

That is the digital divide; those who lack reliable high-speed internet access and devices, for instance, could not participate in online school and work during Covid shutdowns. Entire nations lacked the ability to pivot to online working and learning, and therefore were effectively shut out from participation.

Digital skills gaps are growing

The digital divide exacerbates existing and looming digital skills gaps. Without access to connected devices and reliable internet service, people lack the ability to improve their skills and therefore to access professional and educational opportunities.

As work becomes more automated and more digitally centered, new digital skills are needed. The need for continuous learning and upskilling has been evident since well before the pandemic. The digital skills gap refers to the escalating demand for employees with:

  • Hard skills, such as:
    • Data analytics
    • Cybersecurity
    • Web development
    • Data science
    • UI or UX design
  • Soft skills, such as:
    • Comfort with ambiguity and change, change management
    • Data-driven decision-making
    • Critical thinking
    • Collaboration
    • Digital-first mindset
    • Understanding of values and ethics around automation technology

A 2017 report from CapGemini and LinkedIn highlighted growing digital skills gaps—before the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated many organizations’ digital transformation and exacerbated the need for these skills.

Existing skills gaps and anticipation of future gaps ensures steady or increasing pressure on companies and workers to keep up by constantly updating and enhancing their skills—and ensures that people who lack basic digital fluency fall farther and farther behind.

How learning leadership can help

Address access and digital divide issues first

Panelists in a Learning 2021 Online session titled “Let’s Talk About the Digital Divide” highlighted the importance of addressing both the digital divide and digital skills gaps. The presenters, from Generation, an organization that prepares people for otherwise inaccessible careers, represented the UK, India, and Kenya. They described steps they took during the pandemic like:

  • Partnering with a co-working space and setting up spaces with both connected devices and internet
  • Leasing connected devices to learners
  • Providing recharging stations or data packages
  • Offering “digital orientation” to equip learners to navigate learning tools and platforms

These steps addressed common problems of lack of access to a device, an internet connection, or simply a space to work without distraction.

Getting people connected and focused is a starting point; learning leadership can also take steps to ensure that learners have access to courses and materials that will enable them to develop the needed skills—and that they are “ready” for digital learning. This requires knowing who your learners and employees are, what their existing skillsets include, and whether they have the aptitude and ability to develop the skills the organization needs.

Determine the needs

While discussion of skills gaps and the broad need for upskilling and reskilling is occurring at high levels, each organization and department must also home in on their specific needs. Within many organizations, for example, the baseline of “digital skills” may be considerably higher than in the general public, simply because of the nature of the work they do. In others, employees may require instruction in basic digital literacy before an online training program could be implemented.

That’s why starting with a thorough workplace analysis is essential before moving on to planning the specific portfolio of skills that will be needed and initiatives that will help to fill those gaps. Upskilling and reskilling may take many forms—from an LMS that facilitates self-directed learning to underwriting graduate study for future leaders.

Invest in the right training

A report released in November by enterprise open-source solutions provider Red Hat found that skills gaps present the most significant obstacle to organizations’ digital transformation progress. The top funding priorities “outside of IT technology or solutions” for organizations surveyed were technical skills training; digital transformation strategy; and people and process skills training, according to the report.

Investing in employee education and training can pay off in better-prepared and more skilled workers. On the ground, that kind of training looks different at different organizations:

  • Programs like McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity and Walmart’s Live Better U help employees at all job- and skill levels advance their education, whether the employee needs a high school diploma, language instruction, or an MBA.
  • Other companies are investing in STEM education in hopes of priming the pipeline of future tech-savvy and digitally skilled employees and leaders.
  • Organizations often turn to business-focused online learning platforms like LinkedIn Learning or Coursera to provide broad offerings of soft skills, business skills, and technology skills training to workers; some foster a learning culture and encourage upskilling by building time for training into workers’ schedules.
  • A McKinsey study in early 2021 found that many companies had accelerated their reskilling programs and were especially focused on “social, emotional, and advanced cognitive” skills, including leadership / management skills, critical thinking, project management, interpersonal skills—and basic digital skills.

Learn from your peers

Explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers. Join the Learning Leaders Alliance, a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders wanting to build their skillsets.

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