Improve Productivity by Fixing the Digital Skills Gap



Every new technology that reaches the workplace arrives with an explicit promise to help people become more productive. So a full generation into the digital revolution you’d think that individual productivity would be soaring; instead, labor productivity growth in the US business sector has slowed to a level not seen since the 1950s — just 1 percent for Q1 in 2014. The gap between the promise of technology and the reality seen in our workplaces underscores a fundamental human truth: having a tool isn’t the same as wielding it productively.

A decade ago, a surge of transformative technologies offered low-hanging fruit that boosted productivity growth to over 2.5 percent from 2000 to 2007. Today, managers must find new ways to make sure that rising technologies deliver as promised. In order to overcome these challenges we must first understand exactly how and why we’ve been falling short.

The Trillion-Dollar Cost of Lagging Digital Skills

Every year, the digital skills gap drives a loss of nearly $1.3 trillion for the US economy. For a thousand-employee firm, this means a $10 million loss each year on compensation alone.

Out of over 200 million adults in the U.S. digital workforce, only 10 percent consider themselves very proficient with the digital tools they use daily.  Employees and managers struggle to fit digital skills training into tight schedules and budgets. Meanwhile, a recent Deloitte study found that rapid technological change is leading to a skills half-life of just 2.5 years, meaning that even the most adept employee can quickly fall behind.

While policymakers around the world are pushing to improve digital training and education, individual businesses can’t afford to wait for these efforts to play out. At an organizational level, we need to focus on these six essential digital skills for a modern workforce:

  1. Working with documents: Digital documents are the lifeblood of the modern workplace, but they’re only valuable if people know how to locate, work with and share them effectively. Poor skills in content management and collaborative editing can lead to wasted time, poor communication and analysis errors.
  2. Collaboration and management: In the modern workplace, teams are more fragmented than ever, spanning departments, organizations and locations. For employees, traditional collaboration skills must now be complemented with videoconferencing, file sharing and project tracking knowledge. In today’s environment, poor digital skills can render even the most experienced employee irrelevant.
  3. Attention management: Distraction is endemic nowadays. With multiple applications open across multiple devices, information and entertainment clamoring for our attention and work practices designed around multitasking, it’s all too easy to lose focus and mistake a hectic workday for a productive work experience. Attention management doesn’t happen automatically — employees need focused support to help them learn how to minimize distractions and prioritize tasks.
  4. Communication: According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, we spend 28 percent of our workweeks reading, writing, or responding to email — so any inefficiencies add up fast. Employees need to interact with others without falling prey to distraction or losing important emails in a bottomless inbox. Understanding the optimal role played by email, as well as SMS, IM, social media and voice calls, is equally critical.
  5. Search and research: There’s never been such a vast amount of information at our fingertips — and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As online information sources proliferate, the sheer volume can become overwhelming, and discriminating among sources of differing credibility is harder. To avoid bogging down, employees need to find relevant information quickly, recognize the highest-quality sources and harness their research to create value.
  6. Security and privacy: While security threats continue to become more technically sophisticated, human error remains one of the greatest risk factors in any organization. In Q1 of 2014, roughly 93,000 records per hour were compromised, a 233 percent increase over the same quarter in 2013. User education has to be a central element of any security strategy.

What to Do About the Digital Skills Gap

The first step is to define the goals of the various departments in your business and the specific skills required to accomplish them. Based on that inventory, you can assess the current state of these critical skills among your employees, then design and invest in programs to strengthen them as needed. Most crucially, your program needs to be designed around an ongoing, scalable model to maintain the skills of your workforce even as new technologies and business requirements emerge.

While the requirements for comprehensive digital training are extensive, a well-designed program will repay the investment many times over. Beyond improvements in productivity, training can increase job satisfaction and retention for talented employees by empowering them to do their best work and grow professionally. On a fundamental level, training represents a company’s commitment to the excellence of its workforce — a powerful competitive advantage in any industry.


The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

Image credit: CC by jonny goldstein

About the author: Jeff Fernandez

Jeff Fernandez is co-founder and CEO of Grovo Learning, Inc., which is working to empower the digital workforce with a truly simple end-to-end training solution that delivers the best results in the shortest time.

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