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What does it take to support employees in their digital learning journey?

I’ve said many times in my life, you can’t see your story when you’re living it. It often takes an outsider to see the unique and interesting things that are transpiring around you. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by the comments that occurred over coffee with a group of slightly techy Gen-X friends I hadn’t seen for a while. And yet, I was.

The inevitable question came up, “Where are you working these days?” When I responded that I was helping set up our new BC Digital Academy, the blank stares said it all. Then the rapid-fire questions began: What is a Digital Academy? Why is it needed? Who is it for? What types of courses will be offered? How are other governments and organizations doing this? For the next half hour, I found myself recapping months of research from around the globe. Their intense curiosity and frequent use of “Wow, really!” reminded me how new this structure and format of supporting employees through their digital learning journey is.

It’s a big topic, worthy of a few posts. So like all good stories, let’s start at the beginning.

For the longest time, employers fretted about an impending labour shortage as baby boomers crept closer to their retirement age. For job seekers, this was lining up to be a dream scenario. What no one saw coming was digital. Suddenly employers were scrambling to change the way they did business. Worse, their employees were telling them they were afraid their jobs would be at risk as they didn’t have the skillset for this new digital world. Governments and organizations around the world took notice.

Enter the BC Digital Academy. We had so many questions. Many the same as the ones my friends had asked. How do we address the needs and fears impacting our organization and employees? What do we need to consider as we launch our program? What can we, a full-time team of three, realistically achieve? Here’s some of the questions we explored, and a summary of the ways governments and well-known tech organizations globally are answering them.

Photo by Karan Mandre on Unsplash

Are employees really not ready for the digital world?

For years, countries across the world have been reporting a digital skill gap and lack of skilled labour. Recent reports found 70% of Canadian businesses are struggling to find skilled talent and globally 76% of employees feel ill-prepared for the future. Global trends like an aging population and rapid digital transformation due to COVID are accelerating the problem. We aren’t going to be able to rely on recruiting alone. We’ll have to look inward and reskill and upskill our employees.

While investments in devices, digital tools, and technologies can be made quickly given the right resources, the workforce and culture needed for their long-term adoption can only be grown and developed over time. But time and scope are not our friends.

A United Kingdom (UK) report estimates if no action is taken, two-thirds of their workforce could lack basic digital skills by 2030 and one-third be under-skilled in leadership, communication, and decision-making. Google Canada’s Sabrina Geremia raised an even more startling statistic impacting 100% of the workforce. “There is this stat that 40% of work is going to be impacted by automation. The misnomer is it’s 40% of jobs. It’s actually 40% of work. Which means every single person will have an aspect of their job that will [involve] working alongside digital tools … so every worker needs to continuously train as these tools evolve.”

Who’s responsible?

Retraining takes time and money. Should the burden be on the government, private sector, or individual? Looking at what is trending in many countries such as the UK, Singapore, and the USA, the answer leans toward a mix of the three. It’s a systems change, requiring everyone to work together. Consortiums are making the best use of resources and developing common standards. Successes are showing up with collaborations between public sector academies, shared learning communities, and partnerships with other public sectors, the private sector, and educational institutions.

Ultimately, government has a role to play in creating the conditions and supports for individuals and businesses to succeed. They are in the position to address barriers keeping many under-represented people out of the workforce. According to a Deloitte study, 1.7 million Canadians are unable to participate in the digital economy. Managing partner Georgina Black has also commented, “There are certain populations that don’t have access to devices, access to the Internet — from a cost perspective — and this disproportionately affects Indigenous people, low-income seniors, people from diverse backgrounds, low-income [communities], and people in rural areas. Imagine if companies could tap into that work force, upskill them, train them, and you suddenly have access to a skilled labour pool.”

How is the learning environment set up?

It is broadly recognized that people need multiple ways to gain knowledge and develop skills. But, while various ways to create, manage, and deliver content are being used, there is no standard approach. Not even amongst the public sector digital academies. Some do it all internally. Others outsource some or all aspects of it to a university, a company like Udemy or Microsoft, or a mix of partners. Some rely on curated collections coming from hundreds of sources. Courses may be live or on-demand, in-person or virtual, or a combination of. What is difficult to observe is what exists to support learners in gaining experience and applying their learning.

In government, what part of the organization oversees the digital learning program is varied. Mostly it falls under human resources or digital government/transformation business areas. Many have adopted the UK’s initial 2014 format of a centralized approach with one group setting the training and standards. But recently there has been a shift towards a decentralized approach with ministries or sectors developing and managing their own programs like the UK’s NHS Digital Academy. Rather than go broad, they go deep, teaching sector-specific content.

Public sector digital academies are an anomaly, most having started after 2018, typically fashioned after the UK. A few standouts based on breadth and connections to related programs are Singapore, Canada, and Australia. Surprisingly, the USA does not have a federal digital academy, even though many reports highlight the urgency for one. This gap has led to the individual states and community-led organizations stepping in to fill the void. Private-sector digital academies and digital learning streams are becoming more common. Some of the largest global tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google provide targeted learning to their employees and the public. While other companies integrate digital into their professional development opportunities.

What are the learning streams?

What is being taught and how is determined by the needs of the organization, roles and responsibilities, and the level of knowledge and skills required. Content and pathways are typically broken down into foundations, introductory, intermediate, and specialized learning streams. Most governments choose to launch their digital offerings to only one or two streams, typically introductory courses targeting either digital teams or all staff. Almost all have a specialized stream for leadership.

A trend occurring in many countries such as France, Singapore, and Estonia, is to provide broad foundational learning for all their citizens and make use of digital ambassadors. What is interesting: there doesn’t appear to be any organization that is bundling this foundational content and making it part of their employee learning journey. Not only would this make good use of existing resources, but it would also support national standards.

What kinds of courses are being taught?

People often think digital literacy means they have to become a coder, build products, or be a data scientist. That is not the case. Digital skills and disciplines take on a variety of forms and include soft and hard skills.

There is a need for thinkers and those with skills to solve complex problems. For people who can innovate, create, and manage people and projects. And for those who can ask the right questions, like: What does it mean to be a team? How can we minimize time spent on menial tasks? How do we change the culture?

There is a need for everyone to have at least a base knowledge and skillset. Learning is needed on systems and tools the organization expects its employees to use on a day-to-day basis. Digital teams will want training like agile and user and human-centered design. Data specialists and those needing to read or make decisions on data may want courses on analysis, visualization, and privacy and security. There will be those who have a general interest in or need advanced skills to support areas like cybersecurity, machine learning, cloud, and artificial intelligence.

What’s next?

This is where we find ourselves today. A lot of our questions have been answered, while many more remain. As you can see, there is no one or right way to support digital learning. The one thing everyone does agree upon: lifelong learning will become the norm. How it’s done will likely be a moving target for the foreseeable future. This will become clearer and easier as more organizations share their lessons learned and actively pursue collaboration opportunities.

With that in mind, this story will continue in a future post. We’ll dig deeper into who is leading in this space and how governments, digital academies, and well-known tech organizations are doing things. The commonalities, the differences, and lessons learned.

We know we can’t do this alone. It’ll take a village. As the BC Digital Academy continues its own learning journey, we will continue to be inspired by those who came before us and look for collaboration opportunities with those sharing our objectives. Who or what inspires you in this digital learning space? Let us know in the comments or reach out to us at DigitalAcademy@gov.bc.ca.

Kim Zinke is a Learning & Development Coordinator in the BC Digital Academy. Easily distracted by shiny objects. And dogs. Kim is a communicator by trade, a storyteller wanna-be by heart, and a curator by nature. In 2018, after many years in engagement and internal communications roles in the private and public sector, she ventured into the digital government world. Her super powers are finding, sharing, and discussing information on trends, how-to’s, best practices, and stories with her communities.

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