- Alex Christian
- BBC Worklife
The phrase “numerical skills” used to mean knowing how to send e-mails or type with a word processing program.
This was a highly sought after skill – people who could use work-specific software and would need to know how to use it clearly and naturally.
But this expression has evolved a lot. Digital literacy now means knowing the techniques needed to succeed in a society where communication and access to information are increasingly dependent on digital technologies such as online platforms and mobile phones.
The concept encompasses a broad understanding of a series of digital tools that enable professionals to perform their duties, whether in the office, hybridly or remotely in all types of environments. These tools include real-time collaborative software, such as business chat applications, and sophisticated asynchronous work tools.
Today, digital competence is no longer a functional proposition, but a state of mind. In the modern workplace, employees are increasingly expected to quickly adopt the technology that accompanies their work and also adapt to ever-changing tools and approaches. Professionals also need to use technology strategically: from working with their personal cell phones to driving collaborative workflow programs.
And, more importantly, digital knowledge is no longer essential just for knowledge workers. “They are universally applied to almost everyone,” says Ying Zhou, director of the Center for Research on the Future of Work at the University of Surrey in the UK.
In 2019, a UK government report showed that at least 82% of jobs advertised online required digital skills. And Zhou says professionals who stop acquiring this knowledge risk being left behind.
“Each new technology developed increases the knowledge requirements of professionals,” she says. “It’s a race between digital knowledge and technology: the more technology advances, the faster we have to update our knowledge. The target changes all the time.”
Why everyone needs digital knowledge
“Digital competence is a broad concept. You can work with simple digital devices or perform very complex tasks,” Zhou continues.
“This can range from printing out an invoice in a store, to using word processors and spreadsheets, to advanced services like web design, data analysis, computer programming and coding”.
Labor market demand for digitally savvy professionals has grown steadily since the 1980s. Zhou cites research showing that while demand for reading and arithmetic skills in the UK labor market has stabilized, the number of positions requiring digital expertise continued to grow.
Over time, employers have come to expect some degree of digital literacy, even for non-technical roles – from warehouse operators using cloud-based management systems to doctors consulting patients remotely via video. and contractors managing construction projects in mobile collaboration apps.
Technology is no longer specific to a few sectors.
“Digital knowledge and employer demand for digital skills have evolved as the economy and labor market have been digitized,” said Danny Stacy, head of intelligence and talent at the based HR platform in London. “What was once a bonus is now a fundamental part of virtually every job.”
And this digital savvy requirement peaked when employers embraced hybrid or remote working standards.
“Employers are now much better able to identify specific digital skills and name the software they use,” according to Stacy. “A greater ability to use specific software and project and office management tools is needed so that employees can work more efficiently.”
But the growing importance of digital literacy doesn’t mean professionals need to master all available software to get a job. In fact, they must have confidence in the digital arena; be willing to try new technologies; adopt the right tools that can make routine tasks easier and increase collaboration in the workplace; and also have the flexibility and adaptability to learn new processes.
And today, professionals should keep in mind that they will continue to update their digital skills. After all, when an employee takes on a new role, they are expected to have the digital literacy needed for the job or to learn – and fast.
“Hybrid and remote work only reached 5% of the labor market before the pandemic,” says Zhou. “That’s now about half of all professionals. Whatever job you were doing before, the employer now expects you to learn all the digital skills needed for your role.”
The good news is that professionals probably already have some digital literacy, even if this expression is unfamiliar to them.
The ubiquity of technology means that almost everyone sends emails and other messages, swipes, clicks and scrolls. All this often translates into technological expertise in the workplace. And even if workers feel they haven’t reached the point they want or need, there are ways to improve this important knowledge.
Companies often offer training to help them acquire the digital skills they need.
“With a shortage of professionals, employers are showing a greater willingness than ever to train and empower candidates rather than chasing after the end product,” says Stacy.
This training can take the form of on-the-job training, e-learning or refresher courses. But Zhou thinks one of the best ways for employees to improve their digital literacy is to simply do their jobs in a trial-and-error process.
“Informal learning, sharing knowledge with peers, is one of the most proven ways to learn new skills,” he says.
And what people do outside of work also helps. Using technology in the home provides opportunities to experiment and learn.
For example, chatting with a friend via video call instead of text can help familiarize an employee with the apps they will be using at work. Using social media can help him get used to the more informal forms of communication he’ll find in workplace collaboration tools.
Zhou says that while most workforce professionals may not need very complex computer skills right now, it’s an increasingly important basic need. This means that professionals who keep their technological knowledge up to date continue to evolve in an ever-changing job market, which increasingly values digital knowledge.
“Digital knowledge ends up providing greater bargaining power in the labor market,” says Zhou. “The professional environment has changed in favor of those who are more digitally literate.”