Every organisation, whether in the public sector or private, is chasing after people with the same digital skills – which is why the digital skills gap exists. There simply aren’t enough highly skilled digital experts to go round. As a result, when one organisation succeeds in filling a gap, another one fails.

Organisations need to pursue multiple strategies to equip themselves with the digital capabilities essential to success – especially as the digital skills needed are constantly evolving. These include partnering with other bodies such as universities, consultancies and alternative skills providers (Fiverr being an interesting example); using tools and technology themselves to fill the hole – such as automated software that can fulfil or at least address coding needs for example; creating a culture where people are motivated to excel because they can see the organisational purpose and also a compelling career path ahead; and recruitment that explores non-standard as well as traditional avenues, so that the organisation increases its access to diverse sources of talent.

The power of training

These are all important. But one area that I believe is critical and should be a priority is training. There are lots of highly talented and skilled people already working in public sector bodies – so a significant piece of the puzzle is to train and develop them in line with changing and evolving organisational needs. Upskilling is cheaper than recruiting, so it ticks the cost box. And one of the wonderful things about people is that we all have the capacity to learn things and acquire new skills – so why not take full advantage of that?

It's something we put into action for an NHS employer recently. They had a strong team of analysts – but wanted to develop their capability further and were looking for a training programme to do this.

We set to work to design an approach. The client was clear that they wanted something different, and we were happy to oblige. So much training has limited impact, because it is essentially more of the same: off-the-shelf, generic training that doesn’t directly address participants’ daily work and priorities. As a result, it doesn’t fully engage them or motivate them to learn. They do the training, come back to work, and often forget what they’ve learned, if they learn anything new at all.

So, one thing we were clear about from the outset was that the training would need to be completed around delegates’ day jobs – there would be no two-week release here. Part of learning is realising that you always must learn, not just in specific moments, so you need to make room for it as part of your working life.

Then, we made sure the programme would address real needs by asking ourselves: what does the analyst of the future look like? One important aspect is that it’s not just technical skills that are needed. Look at ChatGPT for example, it can support and, in some cases, even replace some technical skills. So increasingly, the focus will need to be around soft skills too – listening, communicating, presenting – so this had to be a focus.

Many analysts for example, by their nature, are somewhat introverted and prefer working alone. They may tend to do things in the same way they’ve always done them – preventing them from learning form others and innovating and acquiring new skills.

Immersive, collaborative, active

Taking these elements together, it was clear that our programme needed to encourage the analysts to work together, collaborate, innovate, communicate and present their ideas. It needed to be immersive too. Instead of the traditional training scenario where 70% of the time trainees are listening to the trainer, here they would spend 70% of the time actively participating themselves. Core activities would be a blend of training, workshops and teams working under their own steam. There would be some digital learning too, but this would mainly be to reinforce learnings as an aide memoire.

At the heart of the programme was a ‘hackathon’ task where participants would have to develop proof of concept solutions. A cohort of 25 analysts was divided into five teams of five. We deliberately introduced some competitive tension to keep everyone engaged and eager. They knew their solutions would end up being presented back to a group including some senior members of the NHS body, with an award for the winning team. It came to feel like this could have a bearing on their careers!

The programme ran across 24 weeks and was highly successful: some of the solutions presented have been put into use in the real working environment. The programme developed a range of skills and attributes including:

  • Problem solving
  • Curiosity
  • Active listening
  • Presentation and communication
  • Technical skills (though these were really an adjunct to the soft skills)

Could this work for you?

In short, training that is expressly designed for specific groups can have a powerful and enduring upskilling effect.

In your search for the digitally-enabled workforce of the future, are you paying sufficient attention to training as a fast-tracking route to get there?

How can we bridge the digital skills gap?

Further insights