We live in the fourth industrial revolution, “…a new chapter in human development, enabled by
extraordinary technology advances commensurate with those of the first, second and third
industrial revolutions.” (World Economic Forum,)
The fourth industrial revolution will bring technology-driven changes, but the impact is very
human. Our laws, policies and our philosophy need to adapt, and we need to recognize the way
technology now shapes every hour of our waking lives. As with any revolution, roles change,
leaders emerge, ideas rise and fall. We struggle to transition from the old world to the new, and
to integrate the changes into our regular patterns. Industrial revolutions create huge upheaval in
the labour market, in where and how we work, and affect the parts of our identities that are
linked to what we do. Different countries will experience the changes at different times, and
generations will be affected in different ways.
What are digital skills?
In this blog, I want to look at one term specifically – ‘digital skills’. What does it mean? How and
when will we learn digital skills? Are digital skills for all, or reserved for knowledge workers?
To many people, digital skills are exclusive and hard to acquire – think about coding for
example, or the super-hacker accessing FBI databases with a few keystrokes in a film. This
perspective looks at digital skills as being rare, unattainable, and linked to innate capabilities.
You’re born a geek, or not. But in reality everyone now needs digital skills to live in the world.
To be a citizen, to connect with our communities, and often, to learn, we require the ability to
interact with technology and have it meet our demands.
Unesco’s definition of digital skills covers both these perspectives – as “… a range of abilities
to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage
information. They enable people to create and share digital content, communicate and
collaborate, and solve problems for effective and creative self-fulfillment in life, learning, work,
and social activities at large. At the advanced spectrum of digital skills are the higher-level
abilities that allow users to make use of digital technologies in empowering and transformative
ways such as professions in ICT. Major digital transformations such as Artificial Intelligence
(AI), machine learning, big data analytics, change skills requirements and, in turn, impact
capacity building and skills development for the 21st century digital economy.”
The UK government’s digital skills framework sets out five categories of essential digital skills
for life and work:
- handling information and content
- problem solving
- being safe and legal online
It’s not all about knowledge workers
To fully understand digital skills, we need to look at them in the broadest possible context.
Digital skills aren’t just for office workers; technology now impacts sectors such as farming,
logistics, or the automotive industry. Digital skills sit on a sliding scale of complexity; for
example from a citizen who needs to register for a local government service, through to the
product team building and operating that service. Different roles, stages of life and ambitions
will require different levels of skill.
We can develop this idea with the concept of digital literacy, defined by Cornell University
as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize and create information using digital technology.” People
need to be equipped with the right level of digital skills at the right time to achieve their desired
outcomes. As their outcomes change, the skills they need must also adapt and change.
Everyone will need digital skills, but to a greater or lesser level of proficiency.
Start young and don’t stop
Make or Break: The UK’s digital future offers clear guidance about the importance of digital
skills, including the foundations that need to be in place to support them: “those who are not
numerate and literate have limited access to and use of digital technologies. The UK has a
longstanding systemic weakness in numeracy and literacy.” It’s clear that digital skills rely on
not-so-digital skills, and the education of a digital workforce has to start in our schools. The
report defines an objective that “No child leaves the education system without basic numeracy,
literacy and digital literacy.”
Technology is that it changes continually. The foundations that are built in schools must be a
stepping stone towards a lifelong learning approach. Digital literacy isn’t a certificate we can
earn and then move on from. It requires ongoing review, refresh and renewal, and can be
- Primary and secondary education
- Higher education
- Employers and businesses
- Local and national government initiatives
Ultimately, however, as individuals we should feel an incentive to update our own digital
Digital education must also encompass the different generations. From baby boomers through
generation X, to xennials and millennials, people who grew up without technology may need
more education than those who have been swiping and clicking from their very early years.
What do we need to learn, and how?
So, what does the digital curriculum need to look like? What topics should be covered, and how
do we ensure that our digital skills are future proof?
Most education beyond school is ultimately driven by the job market. A far from exhaustive list
of ‘digital jobs’ from a quick search includes:
- Digital marketer
- Social media consultant
- Digital account director
- Digital product manager
- Digital strategy consultant
- Digital video editor
- Digital project manager
- Digital designer
The desire to put ‘digital’ in front of things clearly also applies to jobs. But Digital literacy must
come not from learning about a specific technology but from an understanding of HOW to use
technology, and what benefits it can bring to a specific role, sector, or industry.
Some organizations in the service management field developed approaches to help build better
digital literacy. For example, the International Foundation for Digital Competencies (IFDC)
sponsored the creation of VeriSM™ – [A service management approach for the digital age
ISBN-10: 9401802408], the service management approach for the digital age. VeriSM is built
around a digital product or service lifecycle (define, produce, provide, respond), with a focus on
understanding requirements and not creating ‘technology first’ solutions. At each stage of the
lifecycle, knowing the right questions, processes and methods can add as much value as an
understanding of the technology itself. Learn more at https://www.ifdc.global/.
So called ‘soft skills’ (customer service, negotiation, communication etc.) are an essential part
of many roles in the digital economy. These can be some of the most challenging to learn but
are excluded from a technology-led curriculum.
Perhaps we can use techniques from software development to help us build digital skills. We
can use personas (fictional characters representing groups who are using a product) or user
stories (a way to capture a description from an end user perspective). It’s clear that there is no
one perfect digital curriculum, but we should be able to build a roadmap that takes people from
the ability to use technology to carry out daily transactions through to the use of technology in
their career and beyond.
The importance of digital skills
So what, an employer might ask, is in it for me? I have a chain of shops, or a fleet of lorries, and
we’re doing fine with limited technology. The answer is that we can’t see the opportunity cost of
poor digital skills. Will greater employee digital literacy, allow businesses to take advantage of
opportunities that they previously just couldn’t see? Does the schoolchild learning basic digital
literacy grow into the leader who creates the digital strategy that transforms the organization?
Is somebody, somewhere, hatching a plot to launch a digital competitor to your business that
would leave you at a disadvantage?
The Unesco report goes on to say: “To thrive in the connected economy and society, digital
skills must also function together with other abilities such as strong literacy and numeracy skills,
critical and innovative thinking, complex problem solving, an ability to collaborate, and socio-
Digital skills are clearly essential to support the growing digital economy, but what makes them
different from ‘regular’ skills? Why the need to create the digital silo? Are we building barriers
that will ultimately need to be removed? Digital literacy can improve access to learning for all
subjects, so is it best viewed as a thread that runs through our education, from school to
university and into the workplace (and beyond?). Digital skills add to and complement existing
knowledge and capabilities. They don’t replace them or stand alone.
Part of the digital skills that we need to build take everyday concepts and translate them into the
digital world; for example, IBM has produced an ethical code of practice for AI developers. This
is necessary – conventional societal ethics still applies in the digital world but we need to
translate it into new terminology and add “digital use cases”. But the fundamental ethical
positions around “do as you would be done by”, “don’t exploit the powerless” etc. really haven’t
changed. Digital doesn’t require the reinvention of ethics, it requires a translation into different
One of the lessons of the covid era has been the value that digital technology brings to our
lives. From online schooling to online shopping, family group chats and track and trace
systems, the importance of digital skills has been highlighted in all elements of our lives.
Ultimately, we must remember that technology alone doesn’t fix anything. It’s how we use it that
counts. Digital is more than just a buzzword or a marketing message. Technology has the potential to affect every part of our lives, and the skills we need to enable its effective use must form part of an education strategy that supports lifelong learning.