Digital skills once meant having a basic grasp of computers. Now, it means being able to work adaptably and strategically across tools, devices and platforms.
Digital literacy used to mean being able to send an email or type using a word-processing programme. It was a skill largely required of knowledge workers – people who might use specific software at work, and need to be fluent in how to use it accordingly.
But the phrase has evolved significantly. Now, digital literacy means having the skills to thrive in a society where communication and access to information are increasingly done via digital technologies, such as online platforms and mobile devices. The concept encompasses a broad understanding of an array of digital tools that enable in-office, hybrid and remote work across all types of workplaces: think real-time collaborative software, live workplace chat apps and sophisticated asynchronous work tools.
Today, digital literacy is no longer a functional proposition, it’s a mindset. In the modern workplace, there is a greater expectation for employees to nimbly adopt whatever technology comes with their job as well as adapt to ever-changing tools and approaches. Workers are also expected to use technology strategically: from working off their personal mobile devices, to leveraging collaborative workflow programmes.
And, importantly, digital skills are no longer essential only in knowledge work. “These are becoming universally applicable to almost everyone,” says Ying Zhou, director of the Future of Work Research Centre at the University of Surrey, UK. By 2019, a UK government report showed digital skills were required in at least 82% of online advertised vacancies.
Zhou says workers who stand still and stop acquiring digital expertise risk falling behind. “Every time technology is developed it pushes up the workforce’s skill requirements. It becomes a race between digital skills and technology: the faster it advances, the quicker we have to update our skills. The bar is being raised all the time.”
“Digital literacy is a broad concept: you can work with digital devices from simple ways to high complex tasks,” continues Zhou. “It can vary from printing out an invoice in a shop, to using word processors and spreadsheets, to advanced use like web design, data analysis, computer programming and coding.”
Job market demand for digital literacy has grown consistently since the 1980s. Zhou cites research showing that while demand for literacy and numeracy skills among the UK workforce has plateaued, roles requiring digital skills have continued to rise.