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Four steps to define digital skills

If you need to learn what skills the workforce needs for the future, you will be confronted with a series of overlapping but not-quite-synonymous terms. Digital skills, digital competencies, 21st century skills, digital capabilities and digital literacies are all slightly differing concepts that have gained momentum in policy and research circles. Navigating through these to understand what skills are required for an increasingly digital world can be a challenging exercise.

In this blog post, we provide direction for policymakers and researchers who need to answer the question ‘what are digital skills?’ in order to create a shared understanding among colleagues and stakeholders.

Step 1: Compare existing frameworks: beware of the ‘flashy, flimsy and faddish’

There are a number of authors who have compared different frameworks for digital skills. Their work illustrates the proliferation of models in this developing area of concern, and identifies key considerations to take into account when communicating which skills people need in the age of digitalisation.

Professor Mark Brown, in a useful series of blogs under the title A Critical Review of Frameworks for Digital Literacy (2017) warns that many are 'flashy, flimsy and faddish', and argues that users of frameworks for digital literacies need to be conscious of the political and social contexts of their development. In their paper ‘The relation between 21st-century skills and digital skills: A systematic literature review’ (2015) Ester van Laar and her colleagues identify and systematically review 75 different papers which conceptualise 21st-century digital skills in the context of workforce preparation. They conclude by presenting seven core dimensions of 21st-century digital skills, and five further contextual dimensions. Ireland’s All Aboard! project (2015) refers to 16 models of ‘skills for the digital age’ and 12 frameworks for digital and information literacy in its development of a resource for Irish higher education.

Step 2: Clearly identify the context for your definition

There is not a single set of competencies that is appropriate for all settings and individuals. What skills a person needs will depend on their role, sector, level of education, career trajectory, and a host of other factors. It is possible to identify generic digital skills for a diverse set of people. However, a data scientist’s ‘digital skills’ won’t be the same as an office manager’s, and any definition of digital skills should state what group or groups it is referring to in order to avoid confusion.

Skills requirements are also subject to continuous change as a result of technological advances. As UNESCO’s Broadband Commission Working Group on Education (2017) makes clear, the ongoing development of ICTs means digital skills are a moving target for definition:

“Current definitions of digital skills and competencies are related closely to recent ongoing trends in ICTs. New devices, applications and genres of technology will often involve altered, sometimes additional, skills and competencies.”

The implication of these points is that any definition or framework for digital skills should clearly identify:

  1. People: The group of people who need the skills
  2. Place: The context in which they need to use the skills
  3. Period: The timeframe in which these skills are relevant

By reformulating the broad question ‘what are digital skills?’ around these points, you will end up with a more specific (and manageable) enquiry, for example: ‘What digital skills do doctors need for general practice in the next three years?’

Step 3: Understand how digitalisation influences the demand for both technical and non-technical skills

The trends that UNESCO mentions don’t just affect the skills that people need to operate digital devices. While technological advances create a need for new technical skills, their deployment also changes the environments in which people live and work. This creates a demand for a host of non-technical skills (even in ICT jobs), and is the reason behind the widening of the term ‘digital skills’ by some researchers to encompass a broad set of ‘21st-century skills’ and multiple ‘digital literacies’. In all contexts, it is clear that technical skills are only one dimension of the skills that a person needs to thrive. Any definition or framework for digital skills should highlight this fact.

The broad trends affecting skills requirements are well articulated in UNESCO’s report and Nesta’s work on The Future of Skills. PWC’s recent report, 'Will robots really steal our jobs?' usefully lays out three waves of technological development from now until the mid-2030s, and explores the international impact of automation for the job market and public policy.

For a specific group, context or timeframe, you will need to look for resources such as survey data that provide a more granular understanding of the relevant shifts that are shaping skills demand. These may come from industry bodies, trade unions, NGOs, or government statistical offices. Through our research for Readie’s upcoming guide for policymakers shaping digital skills provision, we found that skills forecasting at a local level is an important but underserved element of upskilling and reskilling programmes.

Step 4: Tailor the definition to the audience

How the definition or framework of digital skills is articulated should be down to the audience and the level of detail that they need. The examples below illustrate some ways that researchers have communicated digital skills for different purposes.

Broad overviews

These frameworks are intended to provide a conceptual foundation for the competencies needed in a range of roles and contexts. They cluster skills into broad dimensions, covering areas such as technical, communication, collaboration and creativity.

  • Web Literacy, Mozilla: A framework to cover the skills that are beneficial to ‘diverse audiences using the web’.
  • Digital Capabilities, JISC: Designed to be ‘used by staff in any role and by students in any educational setting’, this framework clusters digital capabilities into six broad elements.
  • Digital Competencies (DigComp2.1), JRC: A conceptual framework to help policymakers to ‘improve citizens’ digital competence’.

Specific skills

These frameworks and taxonomies are designed to identify the skills that are needed for a specific context or role.

Providing digital skills in practice: a teaser

Given the distinguishing roles played by people, place and period in any definition of digital skills, the meaning of the term is subject to much variation. To foster the development of relevant skills in the workforce, then, policymakers need to carefully choose and clearly communicate the competencies they are referring to when they use the term ‘digital skills’.

Launching soon, Readie's upcoming report shows how programmes around the world have identified the skills that people in work need, and facilitated training to deliver these important capabilities.


Jack Orlik

Jack Orlik

Jack Orlik

Programme Manager - Open Jobs, Data Analytics Practice

Jack was a Programme Manager for Open Jobs.

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