Beyond the buzz: who needs to nurture digital talent?

What is digital talent and who needs it?

Everywhere you turn these days, the word “digital” seems to be lurking around the corner. But what does it really mean to live and breathe digital? As technology transforms our world at an exponential pace, how can we update our understanding of “digital talent” while making sure our compass is still pointing towards a future that includes us all?

With companies preparing for the transition, such talent is in high demand and a handful of experts are already surfing the crest of a swelling wave. Whether we are talking about data-driven marketers or experts in search-engine optimisation, digital talent is characterised by a combination of business acumen and technological skill. But will these trailblazers pave the way for the rest of us, staff and companies alike, to reap the rewards of the digital transition?

Why is digital talent in high demand?

To move from buzzword to reality, we need to understand what’s driving demand. The importance of digital is increasing, but digital talent is in short supply. IBM’s Quant Crunch report from 2017 states that “demand for data-driven decision makers will comprise one-third of the data savvy professional job market” by 2020. Also in 2017, Boston Consulting Group, an American management consulting firm, predicted a “severe shortfall in digital talent around the world by 2020,” with 30% of tech jobs remaining unfilled. Information from QuantHub, a data skills platform, indicates that has happened and there was a shortage of 250,000 data science professionals in 2020.

Companies are acutely aware of this mismatch. In a 2017 study by CapGemini and LinkedIn, 54% of companies said the digital talent gap was widening and their organisation had lost competitive advantage because of the shortage of talent. Those with a combination of hard and soft skills—such as data engineers who are also customer-focused and good at teamwork—were particularly hard to find. And according to the 2021 Talent Trends Report released in January by Randstad Sourceright, 40% of executives and human capital leaders report that talent scarcity has negatively affected their organisation––the highest total in the past five years.

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Upskilling for the digital age

The fear of stagnating, or absent, skills isn’t just being felt by companies. According to a 2017 CapGemini report, 29% of employees believed their skill set was already redundant, or would be within two years, while 38% believed that would happen within five years.

What is important to understand is that the thirst for reskilling isn’t just driven by fear. What’s at stake is the employee’s feeling that their value and potential is being recognised and used to the fullest. Companies would do well to understand and embrace the importance of continuous learning rather than shrugging their shoulders at job-hopping millennials.

A 2017 report from Deloitte notes that the average half-life of a given skill at the time was just five years––meaning five years from then, the skill set of a workforce would be worth about half as much as it had been––and 42% of employees said they were likely to leave because they were neither learning enough nor learning fast enough. It also said that the half-life of a skill was falling rapidly. In other words, digital talent today is much less about having the right skills for a career than it is about preparing for the reality that the career will be a continuous journey of learning.

The silver lining to this somewhat rude awakening is that employees, particularly millennials, are more eager than ever to learn. This represents a huge opportunity for companies willing to provide what the best and brightest need to keep growing. Change is already underway as companies compete with one another over who can offer the most flexible career models and fulfilling work experience, rather than a linear career path. This is especially true since the coronavirus pandemic arrived. It has helped to make remote working a staple of any forward-thinking company. Germany is even considering making it a legal right.

The soft skills that define true digital talent

Getting the right degree and some experience is just the first step on a longer journey. True digital talent isn’t just aware of how to use certain in-demand tools, such as machine learning, to the benefit of the company, though that is important. Whatever their technical specialisation, they share a set of qualities that make up the “digital talent mindset”. In fact, the talent gap in soft skills is even wider than in hard skills, according to a 2017 CapGemini report: “More employers (59%) say that their organisation lacks employees who possess soft digital skills than hard digital skills (51%). The two soft digital skills in most demand are customer-centricity and passion for learning and the two hard digital skills in most demand are cybersecurity and cloud computing.”

What companies are looking for, and what the digital world demands, are professionals who offer the best of both worlds. They are masterful UX designers, machine learning experts or developers who also possess essential soft skills, such as the ability to build a brand, understand and care about community participation, customer service and even public relations. The required balance of hard and soft skills will differ across sectors and companies, but the combination of technical and business skills is crucial.

Five qualities of true digital talent

1. They are generalists

Though specialists are valuable, sticking to one area of expertise will no longer cut it. As the habits of future consumers are unknown, adaptability and flexibility is key. Mastery of one discipline will not be enough. Someone who has had experience dealing with PR, business development and e-commerce will probably have a more comprehensive understanding of the business environment and an all-round approach to digital.

2. They have business acumen

Pretty much everyone can learn to use technology. This is not just someone who knows how to use a certain technology, but who knows why to use it. The objective in mind is as important as the technical know-how, if not more so. Sales experience, such as waiting tables or selling beauty products, can go a long way in helping to understand that tech products, though intangible, are still products. This sales mindset is key and they often have experience in customer relations.

3. They are passionate

These days, it’s become easier than ever to launch your own blog, non-profit or online platform. They often have experience working on personal passion projects, gaining invaluable skills along the way. They understand how to identify and communicate value propositions, how to manage teams or operations and what digital tools are required to cut through the white noise and reach audiences. This hands-on, entrepreneurial mindset is a huge asset to any organisation.

4. They are open-minded

If in the past marketing was about finding the largest common denominator and appealing to an anonymous crowd, today it is the opposite. In-depth customer research, powered by big data analysis, is enabling companies to target niche groups of individuals who have their own quirks, dreams and demands, such as active stock traders under 30 with a keen interest in skateboarding. Those who understand these subcultures will have an edge. They speak the language, understand the lifestyle and will be able to project difference and authenticity, which will benefit the brand they work for.

5. They are borderless

What does it mean to be digital if not nomadic? Even if you work for a company with one office, rather than a multinational, chances are that it will have clients and customers all over the world. Having travelled or lived abroad, or coming from a mixed family background, strengthens an agile mindset. That is key in a digital industry that is disrupted by new trends, tools and terminology every day.

Investing in the future

While the importance of digital is increasing, digital talent is in short supply. In the war for talent, companies could consider trying to create a working environment that stimulates learning and continuous growth. This, along with investing in digital talent and making upskilling widely available to their staff, will be key to surviving the digital transformation.

Photo: WTTJ

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