BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, recently ran a focus group to explore the current employer attitudes to digital skills (digital literacy) within UK workplaces and to promote digital literacy as a key employability skill. Richard French explains more.

The BCS Digital Literacy for Life programme aims to further the aims of digital literacy as an employment skill through influencing government, educators, employers, and employer groups such as the CBI, British Chambers of Commerce and so on.

Digital skills requirements for employers

The group identified a number of areas that were considered vital across virtually all sectors of employment and that a core / base level of knowledge was important. There should be a good understanding of handling smart devices and associated PDAs as this is relevant in many areas of employment. To complement this there needs to be familiarity with the standard range of ‘office’ software applications.

The group felt that there was an overwhelming need for knowledge on how to access and handle data appropriately and in particular to be able to use and benefit from engaging with social media in the workplace, which should be accompanied with knowledge of e-safety and how to protect brand and reputation.

A point highlighted was that, while it was imperative to have a base level of digital skills and in most cases some skills particular to the role or sector in which individuals were employed in, it was also salient that people should be developing confidence as well.

The reason is very clear: if people are simply taught how to press or swipe a series of keys / buttons we would not be enabling people through digital skills, we would simply be teaching them a one-dimensional and out of context lesson. They should be taught why and in what context they are being taught digital skills so that when the next version or new piece of kit is introduced in the workplace they have the confidence to access it.

Should there be a national framework to deliver digital skills?

A national framework would only benefit the delivery of digital skills if it was truly national, perhaps even wider e.g. European.

The group posited that it was important that there are minimal levels within any proposed framework, with five levels suggested. There is potential danger in being too prescriptive but the group felt there needed to be levels and content that would work across many sectors and would not be biased towards ‘admin/office’ work.

The real value would be found in a framework that catered for a wide range of sectors and roles in order to be as inclusive as possible. It was felt important that any framework should be authored by a wide range of groups (ideally employment-focused groups such as the CBI, British Chambers of Commerce, or the TUC).

The group also suggested that it should have a number of major, high visibility, high profile organisations embracing and endorsing the framework to give it true ‘employability’ value. It was also considered vital that government endorsed its use within any policy regarding employment and training, because this is the only way it could genuinely become a benchmark.

A framework should not only exist but, more importantly, be seen to be used by organisations that value it and used it as a benchmark for digital skills for current and future employees.

It was pointed out that the recently published e-Competence Framework for ICT Users from the EU would be a good starting point

Do we define digital literacy well?

The BCS Digital Literacy for Life Programme definition for digital literacy is: ‘Those capabilities that mean an individual is fit for living, learning and working in a digital society. Digital literacy is about being able to make use of technologies to participate in and contribute to modern social, cultural, political and economic life.

It covers understanding the impact of new technologies on society, understanding and being able to manage digital identities appropriately, being able to locate, organise, understand, evaluate, analyse and present digital information’

The group felt that this definition had some value, and that we were correct to not over-define but, rather, provide a ‘working’ definition that could be built upon in order to assist the many sectors that will need to use it.

It was considered important that we all understand what was meant by digital literacy (and its inherent levels), but that the definition did not become a burdensome academic exercise. It was suggested by this group that the work on the detail in any framework would provide more ‘employability’ value than a detailed definition.

What government input is needed?

This group felt very strongly that while it is not the role of government to directly deliver any solution it is impossible to foresee a situation whereby any digital literacy solution would gain traction if it did not have the explicit support of government, both in development and delivery. By development the group believes that government should be fully behind the work to create standards, frameworks and any definition.

Even greater importance was given to the belief that government should be seen to support employers who use any developed standards, frameworks and definition. It is not seen as important for government to be a delivery agent but rather the leading advocate.

Employers' role in training delivery

Employers have employees with varying levels of digital skills and at the moment are acting as if they were ‘victims’ of the current levels of digital skills of employees, rather than masters of their own destiny in this area. It was strongly felt that this had to change and that employers had a primary responsibility to effect it.

Firstly they have a responsibility to recruit what they consider to be individuals with verifiable levels of digital skills commensurate with the levels work requires.

Secondly they felt that employers have an unavoidable responsibility to train employees where standards were below the requirements, as this would provide a widely felt fiscal benefit to organisations through staff retention, productivity and overall competitiveness.

The group also felt that if employers relied solely on the education sector then they are somewhat abdicating their responsibilities to employee digital skill levels and therefore in a much weaker position when it came to bemoaning the quality of current levels of digital skills in employment.

It was suggested that the best solution would be a situation whereby employers lead the way in helping to develop standards. But they need to work very closely with educators (primary, secondary and tertiary) to ensure that future employees have the necessary digital skills for the workplace and not simply to engage in society.

Whither STEM?

Why do we still hear constant demands for English and maths to be considered as vital employability skills as if they were in some form of mutually exclusive club? This surely cannot be the case and the question under consideration was whether it is adequate to promote only English and maths when discussing key employability skills from the employer’s perspective.

The group felt unanimously that we had to find a way to change this script. The blame for this situation lies at the government’s door and the script clearly had to be rewritten to say that when considering key employability skills we should always hear English, maths and digital skills - a triumvirate of numeracy, literacy and digital skills (or more importantly the application of each).

It was highlighted by this group that the employer had to demand verifiable evidence of each skill and that only by demanding a third pillar (digital skills) will government ever take it serious enough to speak up for its inclusion.

Societal drivers for digital skills

Here the group explored the current perception that standards of digital skills in society are potentially going to drive up standards within employment. It was strongly felt that this was not the case.

In fact it was highlighted that in a lot of cases the (not exclusively) younger generation were ‘device savvy’ rather than confident users of digital technology. The group felt that while a lot of employees are growing in confidence with the use of smart devices socially they are still in some cases not aware of the potential benefits of using them in a corporate world on behalf of their employers.

More importantly the group felt that in a vast number of cases the potential problems stemming from inappropriate use of the technology and the dangers of poor governance of data was being somewhat overlooked.

This was seen as being a natural consequence of ‘device savvy’ employees that are by no means adequately digitally literate employees; this definitely has to be addressed. Digitally literate employees brought potential benefits to their employers’ organisations but any gaps in that digital literate status brings with it pitfalls that could be very costly to the balance sheet and reputation of the organisation.

What about training providers, awarding bodies and employer groups?

This turned out to be one of the easiest subjects under consideration on the day. Quite simply the group felt that if training providers, awarding bodies and employer groups all worked to the same goals and were following a pre-determined path that any framework, definition or standard for digital literacy had developed then we could elicit an outcome that could benefit employers and their organisations while providing new and valuable skills for individuals.

The group were happy to position it such that employer groups (and by definition employers) should be demanding the required levels of digital literacy for their organisations and that awarding bodies should develop solutions that training providers are willing to deliver. The group accepted that there were many external factors such as government policy, funding landscape and macro-economic conditions.

Richard French, Digital Literacy specialist