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Coronavirus: How to cope with the digital skills divide

Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, employers need tech and digital talent more than ever. But how can organisations recruit and train the skills they need during a lockdown?

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has been an intensifying of the digital divide both between individual companies and among different parts of their workforces, according to a report by the Harvard Business Review.

The article entitled Coronavirus is widening the corporate digital divide points out that the “need to virtualise work due to Covid-19 is driving digital transformation and deepening differences across people and across firms at an incredible rate”.

But a key problem is that “not all businesses with a digital operating core can be virtualised to the same extent” – and indeed for some, it is almost impossible, leading to furloughs, closures and layoffs as a result.

“The Covid-19 crisis is giving us a terrifying, close-up view of how the digital divide will continue to play out,” the article adds, unless business and government work together to do something about it.

Bev White, chief executive of recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, agrees that “digitally prepared” organisations are in a much stronger position to weather the storm than those that had previously not digitised much – a situation that could inevitably lead to the digital divide getting wider.

This is because those companies that were “ready to roll” when the lockdown was introduced could “move their business strategies forward as they’d already invested in the necessary platforms, solutions and skills. As a result, they were able to adapt products and services faster than those who didn’t already have all of that in place”, she says.

Ultimately being digitally prepared or not, or at least being able to move swiftly in that direction, has made the difference between survival and collapse in some instances.

But even among the organisations that remain, the digital divide is becoming more marked, “with those business that are further ahead accelerating what they’re doing, and those businesses needing to find their way in the new world having to plan at speed”, White says.

As Eleanor Bradley, managing director for Registry and Public Benefit at Nominet – which owns the .UK internet domain registry – indicates, the current situation is “shining a very clear light on where the issues currently exist in terms of digitising business, and where the digital skills of both the workforce and general public are lagging behind to a great extent”.

“What was a big challenge for UK plc in a pre-Covid world is now critical and has to be addressed – existing problems have been highlighted and made more acute, so we have to think about how to accelerate our responses,” she says.

To put things into context, the Lloyds Bank UK consumer digital index 2019 revealed that just over half (53%) of UK employees were without the digital skills necessary for work, while a worrying 22% (11.9 million people) did not have the “essential digital skills”, as defined in the government framework, required to manoeuvre everyday life.

Investing in digital skills for the future

But Bradley points to the activities of organisations that are trying to help, such as Future.now – of which Nominet is a founding partner. For example, it is attempting to support employers in addressing the digital skills gap among their own workforces and the wider supply chain by providing a range of online resources and courses.

The coalition of companies and civil society groups has also launched a Devices.now campaign to supply tablet computers pre-loaded with software to help members of disadvantaged groups to access social and health services. Such software includes simple communication tools so people can access the NHS 11 helpline number and video-conferencing tools to interact with their GP.

But the situation is just as grave in a corporate IT context. According to 2019’s Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey, the UK was experiencing the highest tech skills shortage for more than a decade, with a huge two-thirds of CIOs reporting a talent shortage, particularly in the areas of big data and analytics.

Since the Covid-19 crisis struck and the threat of highly controversial changes to the IR35 tax regulations has abated for the time being at least, this scenario has translated into high levels of demand for contractors.

Harvey Nash’s White says: “Contract-based skills and interims are at a premium due to uncertainty among employers who still need to progress things but aren’t so keen to take on permanent staff in the current climate. Over the past few weeks, demand for cyber security skills in particular has been particularly on the rise.”

But taking a somewhat longer-term view of the situation, Nominet’s Bradley also believes that it is vital for organisations to invest in broadening out the skill sets of their own workforces too.

“Doing so means they’re more adaptable and so are less at risk of furlough or redundancy,” she says. “It’s how you go about creating a more resilient workforce and economy – it’s not enough to just accept that there’s a digital divide and do nothing.”

Bradley believes that the current scenario, combined with the workplace changes that are likely to come about over the next 10 to 20 years due to automation, mean it is imperative that action is taken to upskill the population as quickly as possible. But in her view, everyone – whether that be the government, employers or individuals themselves – have a responsibility to affect such change.

“If there is some good to come out of this current crisis, I hope it’s that people will see things have to change, and work hard to make that change lasting rather than going back to it being incremental,” she says.

“The current crisis has shone such a stark light on where the issues lie that it would be a real missed opportunity if we don’t address the situation in a more active way.”

SmartDebit

The organisations best placed to survive and thrive during the current Covid-19 lockdown are not just those that have been able to digitise rapidly – if the kind of business they are in allows it.

Indeed, the ones reaping the rewards now are those that have also taken their business continuity (BC) and disaster recovery (DR) planning seriously, believes Gavin Scruby, CIO at SmartDebit.

Communication is the hardest thing to keep going, but it’s vital if you want to deal with a crisis
Gavin Scruby, SmartDebit

“Those companies that have only paid lip service to business continuity will struggle as the whole house of cards is likely to come down,” he adds.

While the direct debit service provider was already “quite far down” the digitisation route anyway as part of its own BC and DR planning, it has now moved all of its front-end office-based systems to the cloud.

It has also introduced unified communications (UC) platform, Microsoft Teams, in a bid to enhance communication between workers who are now remote from each other.

“Communication is the hardest thing to keep going, but it’s vital if you want to deal with a crisis,” Scruby says.

In fact, he has found that some of these new ways of communicating have actually brought about unexpected benefits, to the extent they will now become the ‘new normal’.

For instance, following a general systems failure, the fact that his team was now based remotely and so used Teams to input ideas and suggestions for action meant they “had to think before they typed” rather than “just run around panicking”.

As a result, sorting out the situation not only “worked more smoothly than normal”, Scruby says, but also provided an audit history for future reference.

Putting the digital skills in place

Another key issue for the IT team was providing employees who had varying levels of digital literacy with the skills necessary to work remotely. Therefore, as soon as the company heard about the lockdown in Wuhan, China, it started planning and created a risk list to help prioritise what was required to keep the company going.

Such activity included modelling potential loads on office systems, taking swift action to provide people with the tools required to stop them building shadow IT systems, and identifying employees in need of technical training. This training began as soon as the company started advising older and more vulnerable staff to self-isolate for their own good.

“For those people we knew weren’t technically literate, we did a lot of personal handholding,” Scruby says. “We took more time out to do it than normal, but we knew we’d be swamped with support calls if we didn’t take the time upfront.”

‘Champions’ were also trained to become the first point of contact in case of any problems in order to free up the IT team to deal with other, more pressing issues.

“Resourcing was difficult, but we dealt with it by cancelling normal projects and reassigning people elsewhere,” Scruby says. “Budgets were effectively cut everywhere else to free up money and enable us to speed up digitisation.”

But while the budget sign-off process was shortened, justification criteria were toughened “as we’re all focusing on where the money really needs to go”, he adds.

Now it has come out of the initial “taking action” phase, the company is already starting to plan for the future.

“We’re looking at how we can automate more processes and improve our disaster recovery planning for the next possible epidemic,” Scruby says.

“But it’s also clear that remote working will become a stronger feature as those who were against it in the past have seen that it works, and everyone has the necessary digital skills in place now too.”

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