The overall purpose of this study was to explore how 21st-century digital skills are currently understood, deployed and developed to inform policy within the CIs. The interview study sheds light on the extent to which different types of digital skills and skill development practices are rewarded by founders and managing directors. First, concerning the meaning of being digitally skilled, participants often recognise that a distinctive feature of a digitally skilled person is the ability to recontextualise skills to put them to work in new and changing contexts (Evans and Guile 2012; Hager and Hodkinson 2009). The idea of resilience in the face of changing technology is considered to be key to being digitally skilled. However, most participants seem to have a narrow view of the 21st-century digital skills concept while multiple wider conceptions are prevalent in the literature. Existing definitions incorporate a range of content-related informational, social and creative digital skills to use technology (Scheerder, van Deursen, and van Dijk 2017).
The findings illustrate that participants find it difficult to deviate from describing technical abilities. Most participants perceive digital skills as the ability to easily work with various digital technologies and online platforms in a variety of contexts. After the distinction between technical and content-related aspects of digital skills is explained, they gradually become less vague and provide more examples regarding the meaning of a broader set of digital skills within their work activities. A possible explanation for this finding might be that digital skills are routinised in their daily work activities; therefore, participants already consider it to be a natural skill base.
21st-century digital skill levels
Concerning the level of employees’ digital skills, participants predominantly relate them to technical skills. The technical notion is limited in how flexible digital skills can be deployed across occupational roles. The skills learned in this manner will soon be outdated as technology moves forward and practical applications of digital technology require more substantial skills (van Dijk and van Deursen 2014). Various scholars argue that the focus on technical operations is too limited (see, for example, van Deursen and van Dijk 2011; Claro et al. 2012). Nevertheless, participants tend to use technical skills as a reference point; as such, the entire range of 21st-century digital skills is not considered and might be overlooked or neglected. Partly this is because participants believe that their employees are self-reliant and confident in using digital technology because it is part of their core business. Another reason is that they often build on the assumption that a young workforce is sufficiently digitally skilled. This is worrisome because previous performance tests show relative differences concerning information and strategic digital skill levels of young adults (van Deursen and van Dijk 2011). Furthermore, research indicates that skill differences among young people are large (Hargittai and Hinnant 2008; Helsper and Eynon 2010).
When confronted with previous results, a number of participants are more critical in terms of their content-related skills. They explained that their employees experience difficulties with digital skills such as online expressiveness, interpretation of information and consideration of multiple solutions. In line with Hennekam and Bennett (2017), the need for so-called generic skills such as communication and problem solving featured strongly in relation to CIs practice. What is striking is that most participants do not seem to have a skill development policy around 21st-century digital skills. The first priority here should be to raise awareness of the issue among the management of organisations. As founders and managing directors express that there are differences in employees’ skill levels, they cannot operate based on the assumption that everyone naturally possesses 21st-century digital skills or develops them spontaneously. The findings demonstrate that it is not enough to expect that you select the appropriate candidates or consider skill development to be a solely individual responsibility.
Skill development practices
Concerning the role of organisations with regard to skill development, the core of participants’ conceptions indicate informal learning contexts as standard practice. The importance of on-the-job coaching, mentoring and training emerged. A policy recommendation for organisations is to facilitate collaborative practices among peers and structure the currently provided informal assistance. To further promote digitisation throughout the organisation, they can identify those people who are enthusiastic and open to it. Such people can, to a certain degree, promote digitisation and accelerate decision-making and knowledge-transfer processes (Kohnke 2017; Kotter 2014). Organisations can also facilitate knowledge-sharing practices by planning presentations or workshops. This learning-from-others allows individuals to understand the learning choices that have been considered by others and the most valuable aspects of each choice. Formal learning contexts, which are composed of planned learning activities, are considered less often. Training and development are mostly ad hoc and in response to a specific skill need, and organisations could adopt a more planned approach to learning. A policy recommendation is to focus on targeted skill development practices. This could be achieved by encouraging employees to explore, with guidance, in which direction they want to further develop themselves. Personalised guidance remains critical for the development of digital skills (Margaryan, Littlejohn, and Vojt 2011). Not all employees take advantage of the available options for supporting their continuing learning, even if they are offered. Through regular conversations employees can make their skill development needs known or receive support in identifying their learning goals.
Important to note is that the cost and time associated with skill development emerge as salient barriers. Commercial pressure sometimes means that opportunities for skill development are neglected (Norman and Jerrard 2015), especially because much of the work within the CIs is project-based. Additionally, the rapid technological change adds another layer of complexity to professional learning (Hennekam and Bennett 2017). For most organisations, the question is no longer whether to invest in skill development, but, rather, how and where to invest for the best results. A policy recommendation is to offer structured learning opportunities for employees to build the necessary 21st-century digital skills. By using digital technologies in such a risk-free setting, they are able to experiment with new ways of working (Kohnke 2017). Given the lack of regulation of standards within the CIs, keeping yourself up-to-date in terms of rapidly changing technology is largely the responsibility of the individual (Daniel, Fleischmann, and Welters 2017). The findings support Billett and Choy’s (2013) theory that learning through daily practice is likely to be insufficient the dynamic workplace of the CIs. An opportunity for organisations is to create the necessary conditions to encourage learning to take place on the job.
In summary, employees must make a realistic estimation of their digital skills and of the value they add to the organisation. They can proactively seek new knowledge and identify gaps in their knowledge. Informal means of learning by doing with the help of the social environment are increasingly important (Selwyn, Gorard, and Furlong 2006). Organisations can steer their activities and needs in a particular direction; however, it is up to the employee to exploit the opportunities being offered. Individual workers are expected to actively manage their employability.
This study highlights the need for academic and industry to maintain an ongoing dialogue about the type of digital skills that are precisely required and how they can be proactively refined. The in-depth perspectives of founders and managing directors of organisations working within the CIs provide a foundation on which to explore how 21st-century digital skills can be developed, supported and maintained. To summarise, the most important policy conclusions that can be drawn from our findings are as follows:
From an organisational perspective
- Realise that 21st-century digital skills are important, perhaps even more important than digital skills as perceived by founders and managing directors
- Be aware that 21st-century digital skills do not always develop naturally or spontaneously at the employee’s own initiative
- Systematically structure learning and skill development in the workplace
From an individual perspective
- Realise that the requirement to learn is a lifelong imperative
- Be aware that skill development is part of the job, and spend a significant amount of time learning on the job
- Critically identify which skills are needed to add value to the organisation or even to the labour market of the future