In the 1990s, buying a personal computer was a serious consideration. The device itself was expensive, and buyers could spend hours poring over specs to identify the maximum storage and processing power available within a budget. Today, the power of the cloud means that the hard drive capacity of a laptop, or the storage available with a smartphone, is far less of a deal-breaker.

Instead, cloud-based services provided by Spotify, Netflix and Apple allow us to access a library of music, films or photos on any device, at any time. Our personal documents are increasingly stored “in the cloud” too, through services such as Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365 and Dropbox.

The same applies to businesses. There has been significant democratisation of workplace technology. Supporting email or the company’s operating systems used to mean buying expensive servers and locking them in an overheating cupboard. Now every organisation has access to software, storage and even raw computing power itself on-demand through the cloud, and only needs to pay for the IT horsepower it uses.

Squad-as-a-service webinar

This “democratisation of digital” has never been more important. While many organisations have suffered enormously as a result of Covid-19, there have also been great examples of smaller businesses using digital services to adapt quickly and thrive.

But here the great levelling power of digital starts to falter.

The ability to instigate a social selling strategy on Facebook might come naturally to many, but for business owners that have long operated a model based on footfall or word of mouth, it is not so easy. It might not be high-end programming, but effective social media advertising is still a digital skill.

Equally, on-demand, pay-as-you-go cloud services might be more accessible financially, but the ability to maximise value from them is not so straightforward. Using the cloud to capture and store data, building analytics tools to scrutinise it, and integrating advanced features into a website requires skill sets that are still rare and often expensive.

The new competitive advantage

The competitive advantage previously reserved for organisations with the wallets to invest in the hardware of servers and data centres is increasingly the privilege of those that have access to the best digital talent. But the ongoing digital skills scarcity in the UK means that attracting and retaining digital talent is a significant challenge for all.

The reality is organisations are now seeing the consequences of the shortage. Businesses that have failed to move beyond legacy tech, and the skills needed to look after it, are struggling to take advantage of the revenue opportunities presented by cloud-based services. At the same time, stories of a cyberattack are now a weekly occurrence; it is hard to think of a more visible warning of what can happen to those that fall behind.

Organisations need to build structured talent and skills programmes that will deliver a pipeline of digital talent. This is not a project with a start and end date that will culminate in 20 new hires and training a few members of staff. Instead, it’s a mindset change.

Achieving the skills transformation

Organisations should start by looking inwards. Reskilling and upskilling existing employees is the best place to begin.

QA client Nationwide has recently completed a programme of intensive, digital bootcamps where both employees and new hires were trained from scratch in skills such as software development, cloud technologies and cybersecurity.

This allowed individuals previously in branch management (for example) to move to a new digital career. The key is to recruit for these programmes based on potential, underlying aptitude and attitude, rather than formal qualifications, pre-existing knowledge or experience.

It’s not just individual employers seeing the potential of this training route. QA has just completed a pilot bootcamp programme in Greater Manchester taking people from the fringes of the labour market and providing them with the training and support needed for a long-term digital career. By working closely with local employers, these government-funded programmes do a brilliant job of providing talent for local organisations that may otherwise not have access to the digital talent they need.

Building a long-term talent pipeline

Alongside intensive reskilling and upskilling activities, the strategy should also include longer-term talent programmes. Misunderstood, even unfashionable for many years, apprenticeship programmes are now vital for any organisation serious about closing its digital skills gap.

The modern apprenticeship is also more flexible, for both individuals and employers. Apprenticeships can start in any month of the year and more off-the-job training can now be completed digitally for most tech disciplines. The programmes deliver a continuous flow of the latest digital skills into the workplace.

Organisations such as QA provide safeguarding, mentors and real-time dashboards alongside the recruitment and tech training itself, reducing the administrative and management burden on the employer.

It’s not only young people at the start of their careers choosing apprenticeships; they’re a popular way for more experienced employees to retrain into new roles too. The structure and qualification an apprenticeship programme provides makes it ideal for someone looking to pivot their career without breaking from work.

Degree apprenticeships at Bachelor or Masters level are rightly increasingly popular as a development route for high-potential staff.

Moreover, apprenticeships open up the recruitment pool to a more diverse population. And, done well, they deliver true social mobility too.

A race every organisation can win

The skills gap will not be solved if business leaders revert to thinking this is just a hiring game. Augmenting existing teams with tech talent is important and absolutely has its place, but if organisations focus all of their efforts on competing for experienced individuals, this is a race that SMEs will lose. This approach purely favours those already in the game and with the deepest pockets.

Instead, organisations need to develop talent from new sources and grow the employees they already have. Investing in people, and building sustainable, long-term talent pipelines, means every organisation will emerge stronger from the global pandemic, and thrive in the technological world that follows.

This article was previously published in the New Statesman on 4 February 2021.

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