The digital-ready worker: Digital agency and the pursuit of productivity

We have a new essay published on Deloitte Insights, The digital-ready worker: Digital agency and the pursuit of productivity, which is the result of a collaboration between Centre for the Edge and Geelong Grammar School.1)Evans-Greenwood, P, Patston, T, & Flouch, A 2019, ‘The digital-ready worker: Digital agency and the pursuit of productivity’, Deloitte Insights, <https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/technology-and-the-future-of-work/learned-helplessness-workforce.html>. As the blurb says, this essay looks into how:

To be effective in an increasingly technological workplace, workers must know, not just how to use digital tools, but when and why to use them. Critical to this ability is digital agency: the judgment and confidence required to navigate and be effective in unfamiliar digital environments.

There’s a lot of concern at the moment of a growing skills gap, the gap between the the skills held by graduates and those demanded by employers. Studies have been done to measure this growing gap, and significant resources have been devoted to updating curricula in an attempt to close the gap, all to no avail.

If we peal the lid of these studies we see they rely on aggregate skills data, typically from O*NET, which means that they’re limited to seeing a single negative view of how technology affects jobs, one where technology automates skills making workers redundant. The problem is that this isn’t the only pathway for technology to affect work. There’s also a positive pathway, where technology automates skills making the workers’ remaining skills more valuable, as well as a “no net change” pathway (or collection of pathways) which we have empirical evidence for but are yet to pull apart and understand.2)Spenner, KI 1983, ‘Deciphering Prometheus: Temporal Change in the Skill Level of Work’, American Sociological Review, vol. 48, no. 6, p. 824, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095328?origin=crossref>.

One of the key insights, if not the key insight, from Centre for the Edge and Geelong Grammar Schools’ To code or not to code collaboration, was that many of the problems we’re seeing in the workplace are likely due to learned helplessness,3)The term “learned helplessness” is borrowed from the psychology literature, drawing upon the work of Martin Seligman and many others. See, for instance, Martin E. P. Seligman, “Learned helplessness,” Annual Review of Medicine 23, no. 1 (1972): pp. 407–12. where a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from a persistent failure to succeed. We’re teaching students how to use particular digital tools in particular ways, but we’re also teaching them that these tools are fragile and using them the wrong often results in problems and might even ‘brick’ the device. Rather than framing the problems we’re seeing in the workplace as the result of a growing skills gap due to the destruction of skills, it might be more appropriate to frame them as a problem of unknown knowns. It’s not that the worker doesn’t have the skills required, their problem is making the connection between the skill and the current problem they’re working on.

The solution to this problem isn’t to provide students with more, and more relevant, digital skills. Indeed, that approach is unlikely to help as the students are not lacking in skills. While it’s important to know how to use particular digital tools, it’s more important to know when and why these digital tools should be used. What students lack is discernment, the knowledge and experience required to make observations and sharp judgements about which digital tools might be useful and how they will affect the work. We need to foster in students the attitudes and behaviours—something we’ve taken to calling a predilection—that help them navigate the digital workplace and develop the habits that enable them to integrate digital tools into their work. Ultimately the solution is to foster digital agency in students, to help them develop the literacies, knowledge, skills and predilections the need to act independently and make their own free choices in the digital workplace.

The essay explores, in some detail, the concept of learned helplessness in the digital workplace, and how we might might foster digital agency in both students and workers. There’s also a few of useful models for thinking about this problem, helping us move beyond misleading dichotomies like Digitial Native vs Digital Immigrant which have proven to be wrong.

You can find the entire text over at Deloitte Insights. Feel free to leave a comment here with your thoughts.

References   [ + ]

1. Evans-Greenwood, P, Patston, T, & Flouch, A 2019, ‘The digital-ready worker: Digital agency and the pursuit of productivity’, Deloitte Insights, <https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/technology-and-the-future-of-work/learned-helplessness-workforce.html>.
2. Spenner, KI 1983, ‘Deciphering Prometheus: Temporal Change in the Skill Level of Work’, American Sociological Review, vol. 48, no. 6, p. 824, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095328?origin=crossref>.
3. The term “learned helplessness” is borrowed from the psychology literature, drawing upon the work of Martin Seligman and many others. See, for instance, Martin E. P. Seligman, “Learned helplessness,” Annual Review of Medicine 23, no. 1 (1972): pp. 407–12.

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