Digital skills in an uncertain world

Life has changed suddenly and the skills we need to cope with this new reality have changed too

By Mary Cleary Irish Computer Society

WE OFTEN TALK about life skills and in “normal” times, there is little disagreement on what those are.

Apart from specific job-related skills, literacy, numeracy and digital skills are key, with so-called “soft” skills such as communication, teamwork and resilience being recently advocated by employers as being as important as technical skills.

Life has changed suddenly in a matter of weeks and the skills we need to cope with this new reality have changed too.

Moving online

The morning workplace greeting is now perhaps a colleague’s email or a log into an electronic tracking system that monitors signing in and out of work. The weekly planning meeting is a video conference – definitely a good way to get home workers out of their pyjamas. 

Serious decisions and planning that were always allocated ring-fenced, face-to-face time, take place in online meetings – and quite successfully. Workers punctuate their days with virtual coffee breaks and share social media that parody the dire situation we find ourselves in.

Those of us who work in the ICT sector, with and in support of ICT professionals, are also affected by the changes thrust upon us, though hopefully we have the wherewithal not to be fazed by them.

Even so, we see that the emphasis for now is moving to skills for coping, for dealing with novelty, for surviving isolation, for self-motivating, for managing time. The wellbeing of our colleagues is front and centre of workplace agendas, which brings us full-circle back to digital skills.

New reality

The education sector is a good example of how this new reality is being tackled in Ireland and across Europe at the moment.

With 24 hours’ notice, teachers set up students with accounts or access to Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and others. Mind you, it was probably the students that set the teachers up with Instagram accounts, a tool that is now being widely used for live teaching sessions.

The whole exercise has highlighted the commitment to keeping life as normal as possible for students, maintaining their routine and not disturbing the study habits of exam classes.

This week is Ireland’s National Tech Week, an annual festival of technology, that typically schedules hundreds of events for schools, students and young people everywhere to encourage engagement in tech activities.

Tech Week 2020 is a bit different; social distancing has forced the postponement of events that assemble groups.

Technology is the guarantor of some normality in these times of social distancing, and digital skills are the keys to accessing it. Think of the grandparents who have had tablets thrust into their hands in the last few weeks, with the newly urgent motivation to figure out how to have a video call with their grandchildren.

Many of these, thankfully, have had introductory training by social enterprises like ICS Skills in the Digital Skills for Citizens Programme funded by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

Despite the deeply unfortunate layoffs of staff in socially important businesses, many people in other sectors are working from home and heavily reliant on successful methods to communicate and collaborate with colleagues.

Interestingly, tools that managers provide for monitoring work are being hijacked for social engagement and wellbeing by workers, in a new concern for each other’s mental health when remote work is mandated rather than conceded.

This is a grassroots response, a bottom-up movement to provide support at worker level, and it requires a digitally literate workforce to take advantage of it.

Social distancing is, paradoxically, forcing social closeness in home environments, and without usual respites, the best of relationships can come under pressure. Workmates and digital communication tools can provide an antidote and some calm.

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Skills development

Even so, it was not, and still is not, plain sailing. Digital transformation, in general, is immature and patchy, and no sector has got it fully right.

The education sector is seeing the need for more skill development for teachers and students, and significantly, in the current crisis, the health sector needs to hone and garner its digital expertise.

There’s nothing like a crisis to drive innovation. In this case, we saw a new online portal that allows GP’s to treat patients remotely built in just four days through a HSE collaboration with Wellola, an EI backed company, once the motivation was there.

Digital skills are the foundation to underpin these new practices in schools, the health sector and workplaces across the country. At this time, we have the dedication and commitment of citizens, teachers, healthcare professionals, business owners, workers and students, to get us through.

Under different circumstances in the future, where economic growth or innovation are the drivers, we will need to have a fully digitally literate population, for whom the now rapidly learned Covid-19 work practices will blend into daily routines more easily and as a matter of course.

Once the crisis subsides, organisations will have to examine more seriously if working from home provides a solution for the future and individuals will decide if they are built for home working or not. To get the balance right, large scale training and development initiatives will be required.

The pandemic is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of the skills needed in this unpredictable world such as informed decision making, creative problem solving, and perhaps above all, adaptability.

Mary Cleary is the deputy chief executive of the Irish Computer Society, which runs Tech Week

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