The skills gap at work … that no one is talking about

On Feb. 4, 2004, the first handful of users at Harvard University logged onto the newly launched thefacebook.com, the predecessor to Facebook. Just a dozen years later, 2 billion people — nearly one-third of the planet — are on social media. The speed at which adoption has spread is almost certainly unprecedented in the history of the world.

No wonder companies — and their employees — are struggling to keep up. After initial skepticism, businesses have raced to social media, chasing the estimated three-quarters of consumers who now say social media influences their buying decisions. Nearly 90% of U.S. companies are currently using Twitter, Facebook and other networks — jockeying for their share of the estimated $1.3 trillion in value that social media stands to unlock, according to analysts McKinsey and Company.

Just one small problem: The contemporary workforce is woefully underprepared for the challenges ahead. A social media skills gap of epic proportions has opened up, as social media races ahead while formal training and education programs lag seriously behind. How bad is it? Among 2,100 companies surveyed by Harvard Business Review, a meagre 12% of those using social media feel they use it effectively, stats echoed in research by Capgemini and other industry consultants. Reports of social media gaffes and blunders in the workplace are, of course, commonplace. Yet, the real price of the skills gap often goes unnoticed: billions of dollars in lost opportunities and revenue.

What’s behind the social skills gap?

The reason for this skills shortfall? The easy culprit is the growing number of networks and their ever-evolving feature set. Last year, for instance, Snapchat was still a toy for teens to trade disappearing messaging; this year it’s the latest way to reach young customers on their own turf. As more platforms incorporate more and more sophisticated features, even the most plugged-in users are struggling to keep up.

At the same time, how social media is used in the workplace is fundamentally changing. Just a few years ago, social media in the office was the domain of specialized social media managers, gatekeepers who owned a company’s social responsibilities. In short time, however, social media duties have been radically democratized and decentralized.

Employees are being asked to apply social media in new and unexpected ways. The familiar marketing functions, in fact, are just the tip of the iceberg. Social tools are being used to streamline customer service, for sales and HR and as part of employee brand advocacy programs. Meanwhile, social platforms like Facebook at Work (in beta now and expected to roll out in 2016) and Slack (which boasts millions of users, from NASA to your corner coffee shop) are quickly changing how we collaborate inside companies. By bringing social messaging inside the office, these technologies are breaking down silos and boosting productivity. In short, social media has become less a discrete thing that people do on the job and more an integral component of everything they do.

But this approach only works if employees are on board and up to speed. “The real problem is that we expect people to know these skills without providing any training,” explains William Ward, professor of social media at Syracuse University, whom I talked to for a recent article. Contrary to perception, acquiring social media know-how isn’t something that just happens on its own. Both older employees and millennial hires alike are often in the dark. “Because somebody grows up being a social media native, it doesn’t make them an expert in using social media at work,” Ward says. “That’s like saying, ‘I grew up with a fax machine, so that makes me an expert in business.’”

Finding ways to bridge the social skills gap

Fixing this social skills gap is no short order. In the long-term, social media coursework is slowly being incorporated into university programs, and not just for students pursuing marketing and communications degrees. In a unique industry partnership, for example, we developed a social media syllabus used in more than 400 universities around the world by 30,000 students. Programs like these offer a foundation of social media skills for the workplace and may one day grow as commonplace as introductory college writing and computer skills classes.

But what about for employees struggling right now with the growing demands of social business? The good new is that companies are beginning to acknowledging social media literacy as a critical job skill (just like Internet and basic computer literacy back in the day) and are starting to offer on-the-job training programs. Altimeter reports that almost half of companies surveyed are planning on rolling out some kind of internal social education program for employees, while spending overall on corporate training is on a serious uptick (rising 15% in the U.S. in a recent year to $70 billion), largely a reflection of how fast the digital workplace is changing and the desperate quest to keep up.

The challenge, however, is how to teach social media when the terrain is shifting so quickly. In the last year alone, for instance, we’ve seen the meteoric rise of “social video” and a whole new crop of one-to-one messaging apps, while Twitter has struggled to reinvent itself. Not to mention, few employees have time for in-depth courses or bootcamps. Ultimately, the right training solution needs to be on-demand and mobile-friendly. Currently, some of the best paid options are coming not from traditional educational sources but from companies immersed in the social and digital media space, offering real lessons from the frontlines. (Hootsuite’s own online course, Podium, is one free alternative, with 50,000 users and counting.)

At root, however, any investment in upgrading social media skills in the workplace is likely to be money well spent. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other networks aren’t going away. Social business has become business as usual. Indeed, social media budgets at companies are expected to double in the next five years. To avoid throwing good money after bad, companies need to ensure that their employees actually know how to use new and emerging social technologies. Those that succeed in closing the social media skills gap will discover new ways to reach and retain customers, engage and recruit employees and boost productivity. Those that fail will miss out on their chunk of a multitrillion-dollar pie … and may not be around long enough to regret it.