Saturday 13 March 2021 10:00 am

Upskilling isn't just about digital: it's about data

Co-Founder and Chief Advocacy Officer at Alteryx

One aspect of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget that received little attention was his plan to launch a new management programme to upskill the 30,000 plus UK based small and medium-sized enterprises over the next three years. 

This Budget came only a week after the Institute of Directors and Chartered Management Institute called on the Government to invest further into management and leadership skills training in order to aid economic recovery.

It is of course positive that the UK Government recognises the importance of learning to upskill talent, but while it is currently focusing on management skills, it should not neglect the importance of digital skills and data literacy.

These skills are in huge demand across the globe, especially as the pandemic has accelerated the need for businesses to embark on digital transformation journeys. Analytics and data automation skills are absolutely key if these transformations are to succeed, as are workers with strong data literacy. However, demand for these skills far outstrips supply, evidenced by the shortage of data scientists in 2020, which was estimated at 250,000.

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Many businesses believe that the emphasis of digital transformation must be placed on technology, not staff, but this approach leads to failed transformation strategies. It is people who are the key to data-driven digital transformation. 

And contrary to popular belief, upskilling in data and analytics doesn’t necessarily involve learning advanced maths or computer programming. It’s about teaching people how to frame their questions as analytics problems, so that they can solve problems using the data they have. Learning to look at business problems through an analytic lens is the key here. With these skills, employees learn how to automate analytical processes that can produce game-changing insights.

This moment is an opportunity for businesses with the Government to invest in the digital skills and the data literacy of UK workers through upskilling. This is about amplifying human intelligence, because those closest to a process know where the problems lie.  They have the context of the question to be answered along with the impact on the business when that question is solved for.

Several major companies are already making significant investments in this area. JP Morgan has made a five-year global commitment and dedicated $350m towards upskilling, while Amazon has pledged $700m towards upskilling 100,000 members of its workforce to move into high-growth fields such as data science and software development.

Some businesses may be sceptical, fearing that staff will leave once they’ve been trained. But upskilling must go hand in hand with any transformation journey. Any company transforming needs to invest in its workforce and their careers — whether they stay or not — to make them feel valued and more digitally savvy.

In fact, staff are more likely to stay if their skills are developed. Last year’s Annual CEO Survey by PwC, conducted prior to the pandemic, found that chief executives of companies with more advanced upskilling programmes cited improved worker engagement, productivity, innovation and ability to attract and retain talent.

So, by upskilling their workforce, companies not only close skills gaps and drive business-changing outcomes within their organisation, they also support people at a time of significant economic uncertainty and anxiety about the future. 

This point is particularly important regarding young people. The pandemic has significantly affected young people’s prospects, with one study finding that UK workers aged under 25 were more than twice as likely to lose their jobs compared with older workers. Many young people are currently worried about their careers once furlough is phased out by the end of September.

By upskilling young people, the UK could create a new generation of citizen data scientists able to harness powerful insights produced by analytics and prepare these workers to support the business now while also preparing them with skills for company growth.

Certainly, the Government is aware of the importance of upskilling and adapting, though it has not always gone about this tactfully. In October, it faced a backlash after promoting adverts suggesting that ballerinas retrain “in cyber”.

But it is not up to the Government alone to retrain people; businesses can also lend a helping hand. For instance, at Alteryx last year we launched our ADAPT (Advancing Data and Analytics Potential Together) programme to help those affected by the pandemic. To date, the programme has upskilled over 13,000 people globally, providing them with in-demand and valuable skillsets for employment in today’s business world.

By upskilling workers in essential digital skills, the UK economy will be in a stronger place and be quicker to recover once the pandemic is finally over.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.