How HR can bridge the digital skills gap

Many organisations say they’re being held back by a lack of digital skills. How can business leaders ensure they’re keeping up with the pace of change? HRD Connect caught up with Mark O’Donoghue, COO of AVADO Learning, at HRD Summit 2017 to talk about digital skills, L&D and why HR needs to be more agile.

The digital skills gap

According to Accenture, 78% of business leaders expect their organisations to become digital businesses within three years, yet 44% say a lack of digital skills will hold them back. What’s more, 43% of organisations say they do not have a way to quickly upskill enough of their existing talent with the additional digital skills they need.

It seems businesses are struggling to keep up with the speed of digital innovation. Mark O’Donoghue, COO of AVADO Learning, agrees: “The pace of [digital] change has accelerated at a rate like we have never seen, and will continue to accelerate.”

But while tech is speeding ahead, it seems businesses are being left unable to grasp the competitive advantages that new technology offers.

Hiring new people is not enough, O’Donoghue says. “There used to be a big trend in hiring CDOs and chief digital directors. But where you create siloed functions – ‘that’s where we do digital’ – that’s kind of missing the point. There may be functional areas of tech that need specialist teams, but if you keep it over in the corner, it never becomes something owned by the organisation.”

Agile working

To access the benefits digital offers, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way businesses work, O’Donoghue explains. “You need everyone to start operating in an agile way. You need everyone to understand that building the ark is something that should be done in very, very small steps – to make sure that the ark is what’s needed for the business. So the cultural change has to be across the organisation.”

The agile methodology relies on working in short sprints, where small projects are planned, prototyped and executed before being shown to the client for validation. This last step is key – lots of smaller iterations allow teams to track client requirements closely, get feedback and make changes with minimal resource expenditure.

The Marshmallow Challenge

Mark illustrates the benefits of an agile methodology with an experiment called The Marshmallow Challenge. Different groups were set a task: to raise a marshmallow as high off the ground as possible using nothing but string, dried spaghetti, masking tape and a measuring tape. The results were surprising – kindergarten students outperformed those studying for an MBA.

Why? Mark claims that it’s because kindergarten students naturally adopt an agile way of working – diving headlong into the task and revising their tactics based on occurrent challenges. The MBA students, by contrast, spent too long planning, which left them minimal time for revisions when unforeseen problems occurred.

The is a good analogy for digital skills. As new technology develops in increasingly sophisticated forms, teams need to be ready to face change, O’Donoghue continues. “It can’t just be about ‘the technology’, it’s got to be about the individuals’ and organisations’ ability to adapt.”

How can HR help?

O’Donoghue believes HR can play a very active role in making this happen. “The role of HR can sometimes be to help people coalesce around particular things. I think there’s an opportunity here for HR to get on the front foot and help organisations adapt and evolve in their ways of working. That’s partly because HR has a view across different functions.”

He continues: “The ways of working in an agile fashion in marketing will be slightly different potentially from the ways of working in an agile fashion in engineering. So HR can help bridge the gap and support a common language and a common culture. And that comes through in the way they engage the employee basic training.”

There’s work to be done

Unfortunately, as Mark points out, the L&D function and HR function of a business are often the last to receive any training in the areas necessary to move forward – namely those relating to digital skills and behavioural change. Statistically, only 23% of L&D departments receive digital training, yet are expected to train everyone else.

But given time, HR departments have the potential to become a guiding force in digital transformation, enabling businesses to work together to meet new digital challenges.

With government recognition of the skills gap, and the rollout of several Government-backed schemes designed to tackle the deficiency, HR professionals can afford to be optimistic.

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