Funding for learning and development is often seen as discretionary – and frequently the first thing to get cut during hard times. However, as an SME, do you want untrained employees with out-of-date knowledge being responsible for your recovery and growth? Should your best workers feel unsupported in their careers and be looking to move on?
With the end of the pandemic comes the opportunity to take stock and start the economic recovery. But the challenges it has presented for our businesses and working practices have prompted questions about the skills that staff possess, and the new ones they need if they are to keep moving forward.
BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, was not insulated from the challenges that affected business across the world when the pandemic hit. Overnight, we had to change how we operated and adapt to the new way of working.
From remote proctoring for our professional certifications and moving our learning modules entirely online, to having to run all specialist group and regional branch meetings on digital platforms such as Teams or Zoom, we ourselves had to address the skills we had internally and what gaps existed.
What felt like a huge uphill struggle at first – something that, if you had asked just a few weeks before, would have seemed impossible in the timescale – was quickly accepted.
We had to ensure our staff were able to operate effectively as a coherent organisation. Fortunately, we had already been introducing a more flexible system that allowed for remote working. Most of our business systems were cloud-based, but we quickly had to set up an appropriate virtual private network (VPN) to enable access to those that weren't.
As the pandemic has continued, we have been able to replace more of those location-dependent systems with cloud-based alternatives, significantly reducing our reliance on the VPN, and taken the opportunity to route our staff internet traffic through our high-capacity office connection and take advantage of our network-level security. Consequently, we have placed more emphasis on remotely managing device security updates and using multi-factor authentication as an extra layer of security.
Through our intranet, we have advised everyone on how to use the available systems to good effect, and we have rolled out regular, bite-sized video training on security to ensure that all staff are fully aware of the latest best practice.
With restrictions being lifted and the return of more staff to the office, we are still working on the simplest technology set-up for hybrid meetings. We are now comfortable with meetings that are entirely online, and those that are all in person. However, where half the participants in a sizeable meeting are online and the other half are attending the office in person, our set-up still needs some refining to ensure a suitable experience for all.
Overall, though, we have worked around obstacles and hugely accelerated what would have otherwise only gradually have become our future way of working.
It has been great to see so many SMEs likewise take advantage of their inherently more agile structures to adapt and diversify, using technology to enable teams to work from home while still taking projects forward and innovating as they do so. Now is the time, however, to think about what your firm needs to do to ensure long-term success.
Developing the right digital and technical skills is likely to be critical to success for all businesses over the next 12 months. In the latest IT leaders survey carried out by BCS, we found that only 9% of senior IT professionals say they have sufficient resources to succeed in 2021, with 67% stating that their biggest need is enhanced IT capability and skills in their workforce.
So how can you identify which are the right skills to develop, and how do you encourage your employees to become trained?
Using a skills framework such as BCS' SFIAplus can enable individuals to benchmark their skills against a consistent standard agreed by the IT profession. BCS takes this approach with organisations from a range of sectors, using our skills development platform RoleModelplus to show where gaps exist and where to unlock latent potential.
The process is completely consultative. BCS experts work with you to conduct a skills audit that will help you use the skills you have in house, and direct your development spending towards the areas that matter most for your business.
Whether you're talking to senior management about training budgets or to your teams about their career development, though, your aim should be demonstrating the importance of training and CPD in IT.
For any business decision, there will always be upsides and downsides. The key to choosing the right path is to understand your own business's strengths and weaknesses, as well as the skills and tools you have at your disposal to enact any plan that is developed.
Like-minded peers can be good sounding boards to develop ideas. BCS's local branch and specialist group events, for instance, offer a chance to connect with others who have been through the process of upskilling staff, or simply to learn from their expertise. For more formal knowledge sharing, BCS also offers an extensive network of mentors who are keen to give back to the community.
If securing the right budgets for skills development is an issue, technical teams should recognise that most people care less about what a particular technology is than what it can do. You need to focus on how the investment in digital skills relates back to fulfilling your business's objectives. For some people this is easier said than done: it requires softer skills to communicate the information in the right way.
Any new digital initiative or purchase needs to be accompanied by the right training and knowledge to ensure the best return on investment. BCS members can access our careers platform Springboard, which offers a range of soft-skill modules in topics such as stakeholder management or leading a team.
Embracing new digital ways of working and skills is vital, but shouldn't be developed at the expense of the more human skills needed in the workplace.
Digital skills are now essential for almost every job. The good news is that the government has recently announced plans to fund training for anyone aged 19 or older who needs to improve their digital skills. This provision is available from training centres throughout the UK.
Adding a level 3 digital qualification to your CV can help you progress at work. The BCS level 3 certificate in IT user skills – the advanced International Computer Driving Licence – is funded by the UK government as part of its Lifetime Skills Guarantee. This means that any adult who does not currently hold a full qualification at this level can train for free.
The qualification builds on an individual's existing knowledge to help them become an expert in essential office tools such as spreadsheets and presentation software. It also provides 24 UCAS points, should an individual decide to explore further or higher education.
The BCS Essential Digital Skills Qualification meanwhile introduces individuals to using technology in the workplace, building knowledge, skills and confidence at a pace that suits them. Training is available for those with some digital experience and those with none, and both levels are also fully funded by the government, so there is no risk involved.
With an ever-changing landscape, there is no single response to the question, 'Which digital skills do my team need to develop?' That's why BCS has developed a community of digital experts to share their experiences and keep on developing our understanding of the issues that affect business today.
BCS organisational membership offers the chance to benefit from all this knowledge and experience to help your business grow, as well as supporting the personal growth and continuous development of staff.
Apart from access to a global community of more than 60,000 professionals, BCS membership also offers access to 50 groups with specialist interests in issues such as security and data protection or AI and future business technologies.