The Great Acceleration: Digital Skills in 2021

By Emily Peck March 1, 2021
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The Great Acceleration – the latest instalment in BrainStation’s 2021 Digital Leadership Event Series – took place on February 25 and featured leaders from Peloton, Shopify, KraftHeinz, Snyk, and Betterment.

You can watch the recap here:

Forming Digital-First Teams

Following the unprecedented challenges 2020 presented to the world, BrainStation’s 2021 Digital Skills Survey looked to explore the state of digital transformations and what companies could be doing to build upon existing efforts to embrace a digital-first culture.

The survey found that digital acceleration shows no signs of slowing down, as 77 percent of organizations said they plan to increase their digital transformation activities and 80 percent said there are digital elements of their business that did not exist even two years ago.

Dipti Salopek, VP of People at Snyk said, “All companies are software companies now. Anything you consider standard retail is now e-commerce. It was going to be the way of the world and COVID just accelerated it.”

Global stay-at-home orders also saw the acceleration of remote work and the growth of international teams.

Brittany Forsyth, Chief Talent Officer at Shopify, spoke to Shopify’s policy for their employees of working “Digital by Default” early in 2020 to allow all team members to work remotely indefinitely moving forward.

“Working remotely had some challenges but it democratized interactions,” said Salopek. “Every participant and speaker and the same amount of voice and space, which made their all-hands meetings more engaging and collaborative.” 

The panel, however, stressed the importance of gathering the right data – only this way can you identify and leverage the advantages presented by a digital-first work culture. 

“You need to have access to the right data in order to analyze it and make informed decisions,” said Serena Huang, Head of Global People Analytics at Kraft Heinz. “That is the starting point to know where you’re starting from and then you can understand what skills you need.”

Know the Skills Already On Your Team

More than ever, companies are now required to innovate to meet changing customer needs at the right time, and to deliver the right solutions.

Tim Brown, VP of Talent at Peloton, learned the importance of pressure-testing their own infrastructure after Peloton saw such hyper-growth in 2020 that it strained their existing supply chain. They now are able to find where their limitations are within the existing structure, and how to then overcome those limitations.

“You need to be able to get the right data as [your organization] continues to grow,” said Brown. “You could have 10 great Engineers, but if you don’t have a good Designer, all the work the Engineers did won’t translate to your customer.”

BrainStation’s Digital Skills Survey shows that a key trend among respondents was that they felt their organization would be more successful with more data skills. What many companies fail to recognize, however, is that they often already have the skill sets they’re hiring for within their organization in unsuspecting positions.

Most companies can’t answer simple questions like how many people know Python really well. They may know how many Data Scientists they have; but your best Python knowledge-holder may work in finance,” Huang noted. 

Once you know the scale of abilities already within your teams, you can create meaningful employee engagement opportunities by pairing a person’s skill set with their unique professional development goals. You can also look past technical competencies to find other ways that employees can add value to their team, including what Huang called ‘leadership skills,’ or soft skills, that are often developed in previous experiences.

“Learning agility seems to be an indicator of success compared to most other skills,” said Salopek. “The ability to step out of your comfort zone to try something new, and having the confidence to fail is a sought after skill to support digital transformation, especially for existing and emerging leaders.”

Learn Today to Lead Tomorrow

75 percent of executives who responded to the survey said they believe digital skills training would make them more successful.

Susan Justus, Senior Director and Head of Talent Development at Betterment, has been piloting a number of initiatives using design thinking that are geared towards emerging leaders and managers to keep learning.

“We believe in knowledge sharing,” said Justus.“We had the data analytics team present to other teams on how to better work with data analytics as not everyone thinks from an analytics mindset.”

Looking inward to create these learning opportunities provides insight for the hiring process when needing to source skills from outside your organization.

“When hiring teams, you have to look at the skills but also the competency,” said Brown. “How long would it take someone to learn the skills versus to bring someone on.” 

Huang agreed: “You need to find the right skills before you find the right talent. Be clear on the skills you need for your company to succeed.”

The Digital Skills Survey found that there are a number of emerging roles that can have a big impact on organizational growth, which employees can land by upskilling in key areas. These include: Artificial Intelligence Specialist, Experience Designer, Product Owner, Site Reliability Engineer, Cybersecurity Specialist, and Big Data Developer.

“Anything related and obliquely related to software development, including UX and product design, is going to be in demand for the foreseeable future,” Salopek added.

Marketing and Development are also the two disciplines that organizations are planning to hire the most in 2021, leaving lots of opportunities for those looking to enter the tech sector.

Huang noted that while creating opportunities is good, creating the culture and space for employees to take advantage of the initiatives is imperative. “A lot of people are also struggling to find time to learn because they feel very busy,” she said. “How can learning be part of the workday and to create a culture that motivates learning, and having X percentage of time devoted to failing and learning from it if it doesn’t succeed.”

Justus added, “A lot of people are experiencing a different challenge with their home or work situation and are looking to find ways to meet people where they are to keep a growth mindset at the forefront.”

The one constant the panelists know for sure is to continue expecting the unexpected.

People that develop digital agility and continue future-proofing their skills will be well-positioned for long term success throughout their professional journeys.

Ready to learn new digital skills? Book a call with a Learning Advisor.