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What are digital skills? Comparative frameworks that help you understand and develop them

What do we mean by “digital skills”?

We’ve all heard of digital skills and we know that they are a strategic necessity for people and organisations, but… what does the term really mean? What are they, exactly, and why are they so important?

Digital skills are one of the key competences of the new global scenario. With these skills each person can actively participate in all aspects of professional life. Possessing digital skills means being able to access information, communicate, and enjoy all the services you need to live and excel as a professional.

The digital transformation is constantly reshaping how people work. It makes new skills and new mindsets essential; in these continuously changing times, the role of HR becomes increasingly important, as it plays a leading role in facilitating the evolution of people’s digital knowledge and attitudes, in order to continue to add value within this new digital ecosystem.

It is important for people who are involved in training to understand what digital skills are, so that they may become aware of the complexity of a new and often changing construct. Only in this way will it be possible to set up assessment, development and training plans that are consistent with the organisational strategy and put people at the very centre of a transformation process.

The concept of digital skills, however, is relatively new, liquid and constantly evolving, and therefore it is difficult to pinpoint.  In this article, we’ll shed light on the term by comparing the most useful frameworks and resources available.

Digitalisation: the keyword of the 21st century

For a number of years now, we have been talking about digital skills being essential for 21st century life and work. How?

In the new job market, people need to be able to interpret, communicate and make critical assessments through digital. Increasing digitalisation focuses on the importance of always having the right skills, which are rapidly changing from those required up to now, and are destined to change in a profound way. Acquiring digital skills becomes a basic skill. The OECD makes the point that in an increasingly digital and global world, those who can solve problems using digital tools have more employable skills.

According to the Future of Jobs report, by 2025 as many as 85 million jobs will be lost and replaced by machines, but at the same time 97 million new opportunities will emerge for human workers. All roles are evolving. In order to continue to add value within this new digital ecosystem, these roles must acquire new knowledge, increasing the digital maturity of the people in the organisation and at the same time fostering a fertile mindset for the continuous changes we will experience.

For this reason, it is necessary to bridge the gap between the skills that workers have and the skills that are required by organisations. 50% of workers are required to reskill and upskill, by retraining and keeping their skills up-to-date in order to meet new demands.

When workers are upskilling and reskilling, there needs to be a focus on a variety of competences. If on the one hand the demand for increasingly specialised technical-scientific knowledge is growing, on the other hand there are also increasing needs for transversal digital skills and competences to face the scenario of change.

Are you wondering how necessary these skills are? Unioncamere estimates that from 2020-2024, Italian companies will need 1.5 million employees with intermediate-level digital skills, or 56% of the needs of the five-year period, and 632,000 professionals with mixed digital skills (e-skill mix, defined as “basic digital skills, ability to use mathematical and computer languages and methods, ability to manage innovative solutions”), corresponding to 24% of the total.

Moreover, according to the 2019 Digital Skills Observatory, the rate of digital skills (the index of the estimated incidence of Digital Skills in a single profession) is an indispensable component of IT professions (52%) but also non-IT professions, both for the organisation’s typical activities (17%) as well as for its various support and management activities (20%). Digital skills affect all workers.

But what exactly are we talking about when we refer to digital skills?

Several institutes have proposed a comprehensive and standard definition of ‘e-skills’, and they have created a classification of the different areas of competence and specifically identified them. This, however, changes rapidly over time. It is linked to technological innovation technologies and the emergence of new market needs. This is why the institutions and organisations that deal with it will conduct constant research and updates. Let’s see a few definitions!

A first concept to keep in mind is information or digital literacy. The World Economic Forum defines it as “ICT Literacy” and lists it among the skills that are indispensable for each person to understand and interpret the world in which they live and to communicate with others. UNESCO, on the other hand, refers to it as Digital Literacy, or “the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately using digital technologies for employment, decent work and entrepreneurship.” Mozilla talks about Web Literacy, or “being able to read, write and participate in the digital world, [which today] has become the fourth basic fundamental skill along with reading, writing and arithmetic.”

A more comprehensive definition is provided in the Council Recommendation on the 8 Key Competences for Lifelong Learning:

Digital competence involves the confident, critical and responsive use of, and engagement with, digital technologies for learning, at work, and for participation in society.  It is supported by basic ICT (information and communication technology) skills: the use of computers to find, evaluate, store, produce, present, and exchange information as well as to communicate and participate in collaborative networks via the Internet.”

From this definition it can be inferred that e-skills are not only specific to technology professions, nor related to a particular activity or function, but they affect all roles and sectors equally. Digital competences are composed of several basic skills combined with a critical attitude to use computers for any purpose.

Without going into the merits of the models, which we will deal with in a moment, we could therefore pragmatically point out how digital competences always include:

  • A cognitive component, i.e. knowledge of theories, materials, methods and so on, for example how software works or the principles of artificial intelligence;
  • A behavioural component, which includes reiterated and observable skills and behaviours, such as the use of digital tools for work planning;
  • An attitudinal component, i.e. personal inclinations and beliefs, such as learning agility, or in other words the attitude to experience everything as a learning opportunity.

Over the years, the definition has evolved: from ICT we have begun to speak more and more about “digital“. The computer, in fact, is no longer the only tool we use to communicate via the Internet, because other mobile devices are also becoming increasingly important and are entering into all aspects of our lives.

Starting with the definition of DigComp, the Agenzia Italiana per il Digitale (Italian Digital Agency) (AgID) followed up on the 2017 European recommendations that created a roadmap to increase the digital skills of Italian citizens. The competences to be achieved are broken down as follows:

  • specialised e-skills, specific to professionals in specific sectors;
  •  Basic digital skills, useful for all workers;
  •  e-leadership skills, i.e. related to the use of technology in any organisation and how to be digitally innovative in their market sector.

The following paragraphs will explore these types of skills in detail. Let’s see what they are all about.

Digital hard skills

Digital hard skills are “hard” knowledge and technical skills that pertain to a specific professional role. They are digital skills that can be quantified and monitored. They are specific to each role and specific to each level of seniority; we can refer to the set of digital hard skills that define each role with “job skills“.

So, for example, a marketing employee will need to be familiar with digital marketing concepts and marketing automation software and know how to move confidently in digital advertising; a sales person will need to know data analysis, manage a CRM, use social media for marketing purposes and more. Those involved in research and development will need to delve into artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and the Internet of Things..

There are, therefore, a series of digital hard skills that are essential to carry out the typical tasks of each role, and they increase the higher you go up the ladder. At the same time, these skills need to be constantly updated as tools and work methods evolve. In every profession, digital hard skills need to be upskilled to keep up with the times.

Because these skills are specific and related to having experience with software or tools, or they are specific to the activities of certain sectors, roles or functions, there are multiple frameworks for hard e-skills.

Now let’s see how to navigate through the hard skills reference tools in order to find useful cues about how to integrate existing professional profiles or to build new digital ones. Learning about the different frameworks allows you to make assessment and development plans that are consistent with your professional profile.

e-CF

e-CF, or European e-Competence Framework, is the European reference framework for ICT competences. It provides the standard, recognised by the European Committee for Standardization, of competences, areas of competence and levels of competence of ICT managerial and technical activities. The framework is in the public domain and open to all, and has the advantage of being systematically updated, because different trainers and reference sectors are involved. It is therefore a useful guide for certifications, since it establishes a common and shared language on the subject, but also for the design of training programs.

It has 3 dimensions:

  • The first dimension divides an organisation’s ICT processes into 5 areas of expertise: Plan, Build, Run, Enable, and Manage.
  • In the second dimension, 41 competences are listed. In dimension 3, there are 5 levels of competence (e-1 to e-5).
  • This allows 30 European ICT job profiles to be defined.

ESCO

ESCO (European Skills, Competences and Occupation) is the European classification of skills/competences, qualifications and occupations, created by the European Commission and available online free of charge. It is structured as a dictionary that describes and identifies a total of 2942 professional occupations and 13,485 skills relevant to the European labour market and relevant training.

Below let’s see what the results are if we search the Professions portal for “expert in ICT training“, corresponding to code 2356.1. After a description of the role and some alternative nomenclatures, the portal refers to the regulatory aspect of the member countries, and the system provides:

  • Essential skills and competences: e.g. applying teaching strategies, working with virtual learning environments, designing online courses, developing digital educational materials, keeping up to date with the subject matter, creating SCORM packages…;
  • Essential knowledge, such as competence in professional training;
  • Optional skills and competences: identifying user needs, providing online training, troubleshooting computer failures…;
  • Optional knowledge: training management systems, e-learning software infrastructure, emerging technologies, Moodle..

In Italy

In Italy, the Atlante del Lavoro e delle Qualificazioni (Atlas of Work and Qualifications), established by the Interministerial Decree of 8 January 2018, is the tool that describes and classifies qualifications. It is a tool that is used to coordinate the different offers regarding education and certification of competences and it is linked to the European classification systems. The Atlas provides a list of qualifications and also professions according to their regulations and training courses.

Digital soft skills

Let’s now move on to talk about digital soft skills.
Digital soft skills are not specific to one profession or technology, but are transversal and complex. These digital skills relate to the behaviours of people with a variety of jobs and the attitudes that are needed to adequately address digital transformation.
Digital soft skills turn out to be essential for all professions because they relate to a way of dealing with problems using technology. Today, it’s essential to be able to collaborate and communicate remotely, for example, or to ensure personal cyber security. This is essential knowledge regardless of one’s role. In general, digital soft skills are a set of knowledge, skills and abilities, which are strongly mediated by digital technologies.
On a work level, there is a bigger skills gap for digital soft skills. The 2019 Digital Skills Observatory report provides evidence of this; in non-ICT occupations the demand for soft digital skills is very high (43%) – compared to 40% for non-digital skills and 14% for hard skills.
Soft skills may seem more difficult to develop than hard skills, but this should not intimidate us. In recent years, a number of proposed frameworks have been published by international organisations and institutions, which are intended to act as guidelines for the actions of governments, businesses and individuals in developing digital skills. Let’s try to explore them!

Digital competences in DigComp 2.1

For several years, the European Union has made a systematic effort to ensure that all its citizens can acquire the digital skills needed to be citizens of the 21st century. DigComp, the Reference Framework for the Digital Competence of Citizens, developed by the European Commission, fits into this context, identifying the areas of digital competence needed to use digital technologies in a critical way.

The DigComp was first published in 2010 with the goal of identifying digital competences in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes, developing a single reference framework for EU countries and proposing a roadmap for how to use it. Since then, the European Commission estimates that at least 380,000 courses and 440,000 training certificates based on DigComp have been implemented.
DigComp is now available in its 2.1 version, published in 2017, and is also available in the Italian official translation by AgID. In January 2021, revision work on the DigComp 2.2 publication began.

In the most up-to-date version, the DigComp framework has 5 dimensions. Starting with 5 competence areas, the competences and titles of each area are identified, and the levels of proficiency of each competence are specified. This lets us see the list of applicable knowledge, skills and attitudes for each area and it also has use examples for different purposes.

The e-skills proficiency levels, compared to previous versions, have been increased to 8, to provide a wider and more detailed range of elements to support the development of learning and evaluation materials. The levels range from foundation, which involves simple tasks and working alongside a more experienced person; to intermediate, for more independent users; to advanced, for different tasks and problems; and then to highly specialised, capable of solving more complex problems. The proficiency levels apply to each of the 21 competences described, for a total of 168 descriptors.

Each of the skills is accompanied by examples of use for learning and employment, with scenarios to contextualise them. For example, for competence 1.1 “Browsing, searching, filtering data, information and digital content”, if we think of the scenario of a job search process, the basic user knows how to identify, with the help of an expert, websites and keywords that can assist in finding a job.

The intermediate user, on the other hand, can pinpoint for himself/herself which websites he/she uses and finds the most suitable keywords. The intermediate user knows how to perform these actions in any digital environment, and is even able to give advice to other people. Finally, the specialised user is able to create a digital collaborative platform that can be used by job seekers.

Following up on the priorities identified in the European Agenda for skills in July 2020, and as a consequence of the profound transformation in the way we live and work due to the Pandemic, the European Commission has increased its commitment to digital training. The goal for 2025 is to ensure that 70% of adults between 16 and 74 have at least foundation digital skills (in 2019, the percentage was 56%, while the Italian percentage was 44%).

To this end, two new documents have been published that are useful for educators, employers, recruiters and trainers to apply the skills and recommendations identified by DigComp in professional and work environments: the DigComp at Work report: The EU’s digital competence framework in action on the labour market, and the Implementation Guide.

These documents allow you to consult the most significant case studies and learn best practices. They also provide guidelines, key actions, suggestions and useful resources when creating projects to define, assess and develop digital competences.

The global standard of the DQ Institute

In addition to the guide presented by the European Union, an important standard to mention is the DQ Institute, which is a worldwide framework. The IEEE 3527.1™ Standard for Digital Intelligence (DQ) – D Q Institute’s DQFramework is the global standard on digital literacy, digital skills and digital readiness, approved by the IEEE Standards Board as the first global standard on September 24, 2020.

The implementation of the framework was spearheaded by the Coalition for Digital Intelligence (CDI), a platform formed by the OECD organisations, IEEE SA and the DQ Institute, in association with the World Economic Forum, to coordinate initiatives on increasing digital intelligence across all educational sectors. The starting point is precisely the assumption that, despite the growing demand for digital-related skills, there was – until this standard – no universally recognised definition of what they are.

For this reason, DQ, which stands for digital intelligence, has been defined as a  comprehensive set of technical, cognitive, meta-cognitive, and socio-emotional competencies that are grounded in universal moral values and that enable individuals to face the challenges and harness the opportunities of digital life.

This standard has 8 areas of digital life – identity, use, safety, security, emotional intelligence, literacy, communication, and rights – which are realised through 3 levels of experience:

  • digital citizenship, i.e. the safe and responsible use of technology;
  • creativity, i.e. the ability to turn ideas into reality;
  • and competitiveness, or entrepreneurship to drive growth and make an impact.

This defines 24 competencies composed of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values. Areas, levels and competences can be found in the table below:

With these definitions, the DQ standard establishes a useful framework for coordinating e-skills development actions and initiatives for all stakeholders – national governments, the world of education and training, the technology industry, international agencies, businesses and society at large -, providing a common and consistent language on digital literacy and competences.

Other frameworks

The DQ Institute framework, as a global standard, takes into account, as a starting point but also as an arrival point, the existing references and best practices . To do so, it brings together as many as 25 frameworks:

  • There are those developed by international organisations such as the OECD and its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC);
  • The two UNESCO frameworks, Digital Citizenship Competency Framework and Global media and information literacy assessment framework: country readiness and competencies;
  • The DigComp, which we have already talked about, andEntreComp, the Common Framework for Entrepreneurship, developed by the European Union;
  • The International Telecommunication Union Manual for Measuring ICT Access and Use by Households and Individuals ;
  • Standards developed by national governments, such as the one developed by the UK government Education for a Connected World, or the US Department of Commerce’s Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, British Columbia’s Digital Literacy , Cyber Wellness 101 and Singapore’s Skills Future , while Canada has produced a Classroom Guide: Integrating Digital Literacy Into Your Classroom Practice and Australia has the Australian Curriculum.
  • Standards developed by institutions and research centres around the world: the Open University, Digital Resilience by Think Young, Battelle for Kids, enGauge 21st Century Skills, and Global Kids Online
  • International Computer and Information Literacy Study
  • Mozilla Web Literacy and Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Standard Curriculum
  • Building digital capability by JISC
  • ISTE Standards for Students
  • Digital Citizenship Curriculum by Common Sense

The DQ is also in continuity with the priorities identified by the OECD in the “Future of Education and Skills 2030 framework as the skills needed by individuals to actively make a decision about their future in society, and also with the trends observed in the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report regarding workers’ core competences. To achieve these goals, the DQ Framework also contributes to the development of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as a guide, for the digital sphere, towards the well-being of individuals and society.

It therefore represents an opportunity for governments around the world that have an urgent need for a national e-skills agenda, for all citizens, from students to seniors, and also for all companies and workers engaged in digital transformation.

e-leadership

Digital hard skills and digital soft skills are integrated with e-leadership skills. Soft skills are defined as AgID – “the ability to make the best use of digital technologies within any type of organisation and to introduce digital innovation in the specific market sector in which it operates”.

They include, therefore, on the one hand, the skills of the role of a leader, and on the other hand, those specific to the sector in which he or she operates, without neglecting advanced digital skills. Thanks to these skills, the e-leader is therefore able to implement digital innovation projects and foster change.

Digital transformation necessarily drives new needs for the organisation. To manage this change, you need a person who can lead the company while keeping up with new ways of working and technological innovations, and who is able to use digital technologies to create transformation.

The leader must therefore become an e-leader, the managerial role that drives change in the company. In addition to having a strong vision, the e-leader has the ability to turn change into action, creating innovation. In the historical definition of Avolio, Kahai and Dodge, leadership changes its nature in the new digital context by becoming e-leadership, becoming a technology-mediated social influence that produces a change in attitudes, thoughts, behaviours and performance in individuals, groups or the entire organisation.

The European Commission, in collaboration with Empirica, has explored the topic, describing the e-leader as a person capable of generating successful innovations by making the most of technological advances. The e-leader is able to identify opportunities for change, using them to benefit the organisation and the community.

Therefore, what skills does an e-leader have?

  • An e-leader is an expert in the business and the industry in which s/he operates,
  • S/he has advanced digital skills and knows how to act in the scenario of digital change,
  • S/he has organisational leadership abilities.

The starting point is certainly the business: in order to innovate, the e-leader must have an in-depth knowledge of the context and the environment of reference, in order to be able to seize the new digitalisation opportunities so that they may serve the organisation as a whole. Only this way can the leader make creative, innovative and “disruptive” choices.

The starting point is certainly the business: in order to innovate, the e-leader must have an in-depth knowledge of the context and the environment of reference, in order to be able to seize the new digitalisation opportunities so that they may serve the organisation as a whole. Only this way can the leader make creative, innovative and “disruptive” choices.

Conclusion

When we look at the labour market of today and tomorrow, we are dealing with a scenario where there is a great amount of change, and it requires everyone to acquire new skills and competences. In this liquid environment, the needs and goals of businesses evolve rapidly, so navigating your way around can seem difficult.

Understanding what digital skills are and why they are important is the first step in moving into the new world of work. Knowing the frameworks and the resources that are available will allow you to have a solid starting point to be able to set up evaluation, development and training plans that are consistent with the company strategy, putting people at the very centre of a transformation process.

References

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AgID. Digital Transformation Team. (2020). Digital skills. From Docs Italia: https://lg-competenzedigitali.readthedocs.io/it/latest/index.html

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Kluzer, S., Centeno, C., & Okeeffe, W. (2020). DigComp at Work. From Joint Research Centre: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC120376/digcomp_at_work_090720_1.pdf

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written by: Elena Starnoni , 14 February 2022

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