​How the Digital Skills Gap is Killing Productivity and What You Can Do About It

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Every new technology that reaches the workplace -- from content management systems to remote collaboration tools -- arrives with an explicit promise to help people become more productive. A full generation into the digital revolution, you’d think that individual productivity would be soaring; instead, labor productivity growth in the US business sector has slowed to a level not seen since the 1950s—just 1% for Q1 2014. The gap between the promise of technology and the reality seen in our workplaces underscores a fundamental human truth: having a tool isn’t the same as wielding it productively. 

A decade ago, a surge of transformative technologies offered low-hanging fruit that boosted productivity growth to over 2.5% from 2000 – 2007. Today, managers must find new ways to make sure that rising technologies deliver as promised. In order to overcome these challenges we must first understand exactly how and why we’ve been falling short.

The trillion-dollar cost of lagging digital skills
Every year, the digital skills gap drives a loss of nearly $1.3 trillion for the US economy. For a firm with 1,000 employees, this translates to a $10 million loss each year on a compensation basis alone. 

Of the more than 200 million adults in the US digital workforce, only one in 10 consider themselves very proficient with the digital tools they use every day.  A driving factor behind this statistic is the fact that employees and managers struggle to fit digital skills training into jam-packed schedules and tight budgets. 

Meanwhile, a recent study by Deloitte found that the rapid pace of technological change in the workplace is leading to a skills half-life of just 2.5 years. Meaning that even the most adept employee can quickly fall behind.

While policymakers around the world are pushing to improve digital training and education, individual businesses can’t afford to wait for these efforts to play out. At an organizational level, we need to focus our efforts on these six essential digital skills for a modern workforce:

Working with documents
Digital documents are the lifeblood of the modern workplace, used to store data, conduct analysis, and communicate ideas and outcomes in businesses of all kinds. But documents only drive value if people know how to locate, work with, and share them effectively. Poor skills in content management, collaborative editing, and other key functions can lead to wasted time, poor communication, and errors in analysis. 

Project collaboration & management
In the modern workplace teams are more fragmented than ever, spanning departments, organizations, and locations. For employees, traditional skills for collaboration and project management must now be complemented with tools for videoconferencing, file sharing, project tracking and more. Within a traditional office, a technically inept team member can still contribute effectively face-to-face - but in today’s virtual environment, poor digital skills can render even the most experienced employee irrelevant. 

Attention management
Distraction is endemic in the digital age. With multiple applications open across multiple monitors and devices, information and entertainment services clamoring for our attention, and work practices designed around multitasking, it’s all too easy to lose focus and mistake a hectic workday for a productive work experience. Attention management doesn’t happen automatically - employees need focused support to help them learn how to minimize distractions and prioritize tasks.

According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, we spend 28% of our workweeks reading, writing, or responding to email - so any inefficiencies in the way we do it add up fast. Employees need to use email and other digital communication channels f to interact with others without falling prey to distraction or losing important emails in a bottomless inbox. Understanding the optimal role played by various channels - not just email, but SMS, IM, social media, and voice calls, is equally critical. 

Search & research
There’s never been such a vast amount of information at our fingertips - and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As online information sources proliferate, and become larger, people can quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer volume, or baffled by their inability to discriminate among sources of differing credibility. To avoid bogging down, employees need the skills to find relevant information quickly, recognize the highest-quality sources, and harness their research to create value. As always, only the best research can inform the best analysis. 

Security & privacy
While security threats continue to become more technically sophisticated, human error remains one of the greatest risk factors in any organization. In Q1 2014, roughly 93,000 records per hour were compromised, a 233% increase over the same quarter in 2013. User education has to be a central element of any complete security and threat protection strategy. 

What to do about the digital skills gap
The first step is to define the goals of the various departments in your business and the specific skills required to accomplish them. Based on that inventory, you can assess the current state of these critical skills among your employees, then design and invest in programs to strengthen them as needed. Most crucially, your program needs to be designed around an ongoing, scalable model to maintain the skills of your workforce over time, even as new technologies and business requirements emerge.

While the requirements for comprehensive digital training are extensive, a well-designed program will repay the investment many times over. Beyond improvements in productivity, training can increase job satisfaction and retention for talented employees by empowering them to do their best work and grow professionally. On a fundamental level, training represents a company’s commitment to the excellence of its workforce - a powerful competitive advantage in any industry. 

Jeff FernandezAbout the author: Jeff Fernandez is co-founder and CEO of Grovo Learning, Inc., which is working to empower the digital workforce with a truly simple end-to-end training solution that delivers the best results in the shortest time.


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