Bridging the digital skills gap: a process or a mindset?

“Keep up or get left behind” is a phrase that businesses are all too familiar with. Despite the increasing awareness around digital disruption and best efforts to take this on board, businesses are still struggling.

One company that was able to build their entire business model around disruption is language learning app, busuu. In an increasingly competitive market, the founders knew they had to stand out and come up with an idea that would not only meet current demand but also account for future developments. With hundreds of apps already out there, many of them were offering a whole range of activities, but were missing a key element – collaboration. From this, busuu decided to combine language learning technology with social media, providing a social network of native speakers in various languages. As well as encouraging collaborative learning, this also enabled peer-to-peer interaction, video chats and mock online conversations, all at the user’s convenience.

Keen to expand their offering, busuu saw an opportunity when they realised there was a shortage of native English teachers. Teaming up with Pearson in 2014, they went on to offer an online test and certification in English as a foreign language, and in doing so, disrupted the TEFL market. Following on from this in 2017, they collaborated with Uber to offer free English language lessons to drivers across London, further revolutionising the way that users learn. Their approach to disruption speaks volumes as they now have more than 65 million users, and are continuing to thrive in an industry where so many have failed. While there are many lessons to take away from this, the one that really stands out is the need to prepare for disruption, rather than react to it.


Getting ready for disruption


Although it may seem like we’ve witnessed some of the biggest technological changes over the last few years, the truth is we’re only just getting started. According to Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and Google engineer, Artificial Intelligence (AI) could reach human levels as soon as 2029. With advancements in AI and immersive personalisation set to completely disrupt the way we live and work, businesses need to act now.

In order to prepare for disruption, businesses need to revise the way they think about change. For example, we already know that on average, data doubles every 3 years meaning a surge in roles such as data analysts and customer experience designers. It’s been predicted that the demand for data analysts and big data skills is set to create over 300,000 jobs by 2020.1 If businesses suddenly find that there is a skills gap within their organisation, their main issue will be filling this quickly so they don’t find themselves falling behind and losing out to competitors. Identifying skills gaps as early as possible is key and while many businesses may rush to start recruiting, they need to face the possibility that there may not be enough supply for demand. The solution is simple – prepare for disruption from within. This means engaging employees and providing them with valuable training that will help them to expand and develop their current skill set.

Another oversight that businesses are often guilty of is not thinking of their organisation as a whole entity. While it may seem like a good idea to have a few specialists distributed throughout the company, the reality is that it’s far more effective to digitalise the company as a whole. To be able to do this, getting buy-in from senior leaders is crucial. With 55% of L&D managers worried that senior leaders only “pay lip service” to digital training, it’s more important than ever that they’re able to understand what skills are needed across the whole company so that they can invest in the right training.


What’s next for businesses?


Instilling a positive culture that is ready for change

Change is a word which is often met with some resistance. However, this can be avoided by creating a company culture that rewards and embraces change. When it comes to preparing for disruption, it’s as much about culture as it is about strategy. Getting employees excited about new technology and seeing the benefits that it brings starts with getting them to actually use it in the workplace. For example, adopting tools such as Trello and Google Hangouts into everyday tasks to encourage virtual collaboration between employees. This can be implemented through targeting heads of the teams first and allowing them to use their leadership skills to implement this from the top down. This means targeting everyone. Right through from senior managers to executives and junior levels.

Changes in the way that businesses work is also important. For example adopting an agile approach by introducing more flexibility around working hours and working locations can lead to a more responsive and reactive workforce. Open plan spaces, breakout areas and motivational activities can also go a long way in fostering a more progressive company culture. Google have long been advocates of this, offering state-of-the-art office spaces and running regular activities, such as Dragon’s Den type exercises, to help employees innovate as a team and think outside the box. Another example is Salesforce, who provide flexible working arrangements, pay for employees to carry out volunteer work, and also offer educational assistance to employees including full reimbursement of any training carried out.


Investing in effective training that works

Although digital training is nothing new, the lasting impact of it needs to be reconsidered. Often treated as a one-off exercise, 24% of businesses admit that they do not use data to track the effectiveness of their learning programmes. So not surprisingly the same proportion have found that their investments in digital skills does not deliver clear, measurable return on investment. For training to actually be effective in the workplace and deliver real impact to the business, it requires a more hands-on and applicable approach. Sitting in a training room for a day or completing a series of exercises online have shown to be unsuccessful a lot of the time, with a dropout rate between 40% and 80%.2 Instead, learning that incorporates practical application, exercises that require peer-to-peer collaboration and situations that mimic real-life scenarios are proven to be a lot more beneficial. This type of training means that employees are much more likely to apply their new skills to their role and use it as part of their ongoing development.


Driving a digital mindset across the whole organisation

Businesses often fail to see the value of introducing a digital mindset across the whole organisation. The thinking behind digital training for a lot of businesses is to train up the Sales and Marketing teams first, and in some cases bypass other departments completely. Our Digital Readiness Index has shown that while 42% of Sales and Marketing departments receive training, it drops to just 23% in HR teams. The problem is, digital is often thought of as an execution channel rather than a business mindset. Therefore, the value of a ‘digital organisation’ versus a ‘digital team’ is one of the most important shifts a business can adopt when preparing for disruption. This mindset needs to apply to every single employee within the company, whether they’re a senior leader in Marketing or a junior HR administrator. Without this, businesses will struggle to innovate and demonstrate flexibility when it comes to exercising up-to-date industry skills.


What this means for the future

In an age where businesses are constantly adapting to the digital landscape, leaders are often left wondering when and how to act. The answer is now. Unlike 30 years ago where training was perfectly effective as a one-off practice, the constantly evolving world that we now live in calls for the same treatment in the workplace. Training your employees is not an overnight job and to remain effective, it’s likely that it will need to be an ongoing practice. However getting this right and pairing it with the right mindset will prove fundamental when it comes down to who survives the next wave of disruption.


2Papia Bawa, January-March 2016, “Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review”, Available: 

Stephanie Khan

Posted March 17, 2017