Maintaining our digital skills: ‘understanding is in a state of perpetual beta’

We are Expert

In my last few posts I’ve been talking about what the PACE values mean to me and for digital projects at CIPD. We are Purposeful, Agile, Collaborative and Expert. In this week’s post I’m going to explore what it means to be expert in the digital sector.

What is clear is that it’s not like it was in our grandparents’ or even our parents’ day.

There’s no longer a career for life with a single set of skills


Previous generations expected a certain evolution to their careers and the acquisition of a set of skills that would accompany them throughout that career. At a time when technological change was slower paced, indeed ponderous by today’s standards, there was a certainty and a security associated with developing your professional skill set.

Developing professional competence meant the gradual accumulation and mastery of a handful of skills that would see one through from awkward adolescence to the gold watch. For example, at 18 my Grandma Butterfield learned the shorthand and touch typing skills that sustained her through her entire career.

Skills have a very short shelf life…

But things have changed. The other week I came across a shocking fact: present day work skills have a shelf life of just 2.5 years. [Deloitte Human Capital Trends Switzerland 2014]. If we’re working from 21 to 67, that means 20 cycles of acquiring and mastering a new set of skills. And that skills shelf life is only set to get shorter, as the pace of change increases.

…And ours are shorter than most

The Digital Production team need to master a set of skills with a shorter shelf life than most; working in an industry experiencing a dizzying pace of change. Bleeding edge becomes best practice within months, superseded by a whole new methodology, new thinking and techniques shortly after.

Countering digital bad habits

Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning officer at Microsoft UK, spoke at CIPD 2015 ACE. He warned of the digital bad habits we pick up in an attempt to cope with the demands of all-pervasive tech and the information overload. Particularly the tendency to skim read rather than engage deeply with information. But the complexity of the modern workplace and the problems to be solved by teams like ours, means that we can’t graze our way to comprehension.

Keeping digital skills up to date

So how do we do it? How do we as a team operating in this fast moving, complex arena keep up to date, keep innovating?

In a sense we’re fortunate in that there is a natural affinity and overlap between digital skills (as I imagine there are in many teams) – see my last post on Collaboration where I explore this further.

This makes for a team where sympathies, skills and experience complement and interface nicely with one another, and where by pooling that collective experience and knowledge we can both keep our collective skill set current and effectively collaborate to solve complex problems.

‘Collective understanding is in a state of perpetual beta’

Harold Jarche writes that we must accept that

our collective understanding is in a state of perpetual Beta. This is how we can create a culture of innovation.

Harold Jarche, Seeking Perpetual Beta: A Guidebook for the Network Era

Each of us in the team has a personal responsibility to continually seek out appropriate sources of information, filter, understand and relate them to what we’re working on and then be prepared to share with the group to further refine, re-shape and connect.

How do we do it in our team? As well informal knowledge sharing, working closely and collaboratively across different – often related – projects, we also share our skills in more formal ways. Because we’re all passionate and interested in what we do, in the space in which we operate, we’re all reading, learning, discovering. Interesting nuggets are shared with the team via email, curated via Google+, or explored in team meetings.

Digital factoids

Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is only really successful and sustainable when it’s fun and when it’s embedded as part of our everyday routine. So in our monthly team meetings I encourage everyone to share a ‘digital factoid’ we’ve unearthed during our online sauntering. These can be digital humanity-is-doomed-style facts:

  • Did you know Domino’s Pizza launched a physical button (presumably to place alongside the TV remote control) that allows customers to place an online order for their favourite pizza? (Link)

…digital humanity-is-awesome-style facts:

  • Did you know that there’s now an app that pairs the visually impaired with the sighted so that people can provide commentary to help others cope with small everyday tasks. (Link)

…‘march of the algorithms’-type facts:

  • Did you know that comments in discussion threads can be analysed, summarised and graphically displayed to give a ‘a coherent and concise account of the commenters’ opinions’. (Link)

…or just plain weird facts.

    • Did you know that the energy required to power the world’s appetite for knowledge is equivalent to 120 worth of eggs per second. If you don’t believe me, here are the workings:
      • Google claims that a search query requires altogether about 1 kJ or 0.0003 kW·h. (Link)
      • 1 large egg (boiled) provides roughly 331 kJ. (Link)
      • Google claims estimates there are at least 40000 searches per second. (Link)

Therefore – 40000/331 (kJ consumed by search every seconds divided by kJ in eggs) = 120 eggs per second (equivalent of power consumed)
Thanks to Ed Vald, Knowledge & Metadata Manager for this one.

Sometimes they’re directly related to what we’re working on, but often they’re not. But they always prompt plenty of ‘wow’s, discussion and connections between the team and between ideas.

The skills swap shop


We also run a monthly ‘skills swap shop’ (yes I’m a child of the 70s): a 30-40 minute slot in the team meeting where team members share insights from their particular area of expertise or describe what they’re currently working on. Occasionally guests drop in to talk about related projects or skills – last month the Marketing Database team came in to talk about search engine optimisation.

Curious careers

For those of us who are employed in professions with any degree of skills volatility, it is incumbent upon ourselves to keep our knowledge and skills up to date.

Being able to continuously learn, and share that new knowledge, will be as important as showing up on time was in the industrial economy.

Harold Jarche, Seeking Perpetual Beta: A Guidebook for the Network Era

Alan Tofflin

For our own continued employability, for the success of our teams and the organisations we work for, we must remain curious. Our antenea should be forever twitching, on the look out for the latest nuggets of interest relevant to the areas we’re working on. And we need to be prepared and willing to filter, share, discuss and develop that knowledge, those ideas, in collaboration with our colleagues.


Collaborative working

The PACE values at CIPD

You probably haven’t heard of PACE, but everyone who works for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development certainly has. They are the values underpin everything we aim to do and to be at CIPD, they run through our corporate culture like the words ‘Brighton’ through a stick of rock.

The PACE values are on display throughout the CIPD HQ in Wimbledon, on posters and stencilled onto the wall in our ‘OpenSpace’ coffee shop. This jaunty acronym stands for

Ever since I joined CIPD two and a half years ago I’ve been mulling over the PACE values, what they really mean, how we put them into practice.

In this week’s post I’m going to explore collaborative working and what it means for the Digital Production team.

We are Collaborative

Of all the PACE values, I think of collaboration as the meta value; we can’t be purposeful, agile or expert without collaboration.

  • To build an agile, innovative business, able to navigate and exploit the vagaries of 21st century economic reality;
  • To build our own expertise whilst contributing to the collective understanding of our teams and networks;
  • To deliver successful outcomes;
  • To develop motivated, high performing teams;

we need first and foremost to collaborate.

We are Drucker’s ‘knowledge workers’

According to the Work Foundation, in their 2009 Knowledge Workers and Knowledge Work report, 30% of the total UK workforce constitute ‘knowledge workers’ in ‘jobs with high knowledge content’.

The now ubiquitous term ‘knowledge worker’ originates with Peter Drucker and perfectly describes the work we do in the Digital Production team at CIPD.

Productive work in today’s society and economy is work that applies vision, knowledge and concepts — work that is based on the mind rather than the hand.

Peter Drucker, Landmarks of Tomorrow, 1959

For the Digital Production team we apply our collective vision, knowledge and concepts in the production of useful outputs, namely the delivery of digital platforms, communications and learning.

But knowledge is no longer stable

When Drucker described the concept of the ‘knowledge worker’ almost 60 years ago the knowledge acquired during one’s professional career had some degree of permanence.

But the knowledge acquired during the typical 21st century knowledge worker’s professional career has a shorter and shorter lifespan (see next week’s post Building and Maintaining Expertise).

And knowledge is no longer power

Knowledge might once have been power, but with the transient nature of today’s skills, the miserly hoarding of knowledge is no longer the path to success.

It is those who share their knowledge freely, pooling it with others to build a common, more sophisticated understanding, who thrive and progress in the modern workplace.

Working out loud

The Digital Production team, in common with the rest of CIPD, uses our Workspace intranet platform to work out loud, to share work in progress, milestones and ideas.

Bryce Williams crystallised the behaviours and outcomes of using Social Collaboration tools with the phrase ‘working out loud’ which he boiled down to this simple formula:

Working Out Loud = Observable Work + Narrating Your Work

Working out loud is particularly useful for one’s own reflective learning: grounding acquired knowledge through public narration.

John Stepper expanded Bryce Willliams’ definition, to identify the 5 Elements of Working Out Loud:

  • Making your work visible 
  • Making work better
  • Leading with generosity
  • Building a social network
  • Making it purposeful

Blogging – let’s face it – does have an element of self promotion. (And why not?) But it’s also, as Stepper puts it, about ‘leading with generosity’, contributing ideas to the wider debate, building on other people’s ideas, using platforms and tools that encourage networking, sharing and debate.

The interoperability of people as well as systems

Today’s economy is a social economy with collaboration at its center. In the past, we could dominate by accumulating resources and driving efficiency, but now agility and interoperability that rule the day.  We need to shift our focus from assets and capabilities to empathy, design and networked organizations.

Greg Satel, Why the Ability to Collaborate is the New Competitive Advantage,

I often talk of the importance of the interoperability of systems and of data (see last year’s post on Open Standards and Open Platforms), but the interoperability of the people who build those systems is equally important, particularly the exchange of information and ideas.

We geeks need social skills

For the digital workforce, our social, interpersonal and emotional skills are equally important, if not more so, than our technical skills – for our technical skills soon date.

Communication, empathy, an awareness of how we interact with others and how others will interact with what we build; but above all, the ability to collaborate. And that collaboration isn’t just the ability to get along with your team mates, but the sharing of knowledge and the building of communal ideas with a shared sense of ownership. (For more on this look out for a future post on Ideation.)

Being a ‘techie’ doesn’t mean we’re somehow less human, that we’re some kind of Spock-like, robotic, coding machines. Being a successful techie, building workable solutions, has always meant the close collaboration of peers on common projects of extraordinary complexity.

The interconnectedness of digital skills

The Digital Production team operates in a space where the boundaries of our skills intersect with those of our team mates. Let’s take web content strategy as an example, it has some core skills and processes of its own, but has many commonalities with information architecture and user experience, in fact shares the same worldview (the centrality of the online customer experience).

The edgelessness of the web tears down the constructed edges in the company. Everything is so interconnected that nobody has a clear domain of work any longer – the walls are gone, so we’re left to learn how to collaborate in the spaces where things connect.

Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design

Because of this ‘edgelessness’ of digital work, we must, as Frank Chimero puts it ‘collaborate in the spaces where things connect’. And that’s what makes digital work so much fun: collaborating, building on one another’s ideas and expertise, working together to develop new and innovative solutions that delight, help and inform.

‘Job’ should never be ‘a four letter word’

That interconnectedness of the digital work domain also means that we can no longer think of our jobs as neat, self contained little boxes with a pre-determined, static set of tasks and accountabilities.

‘Job’ according to Harold Jarche ‘is a four-letter word’ because of the way that tightly constrained job profiles and narrow minded managers can stifle the ‘intrepreneurial’ spirit, narrow the space that we need to collaborate, dampen the creativity we need to be innovative – all those behaviours and that momentum businesses need to harness in order to exploit ‘transient competitive advantage’ (Rita Gunther McGrath).

Job profiles as a jumping off point for collaboration

So job profiles mustn’t be a straight jacket, but rather a jumping off point for collaboration and contribution towards the team’s, and ultimately the organisation’s goals and purpose.

Breaking down job boundaries – whilst ensuring people feel safe rather than threatened, that their unique contributions are acknowledged and valued – is key to engendering the collaborative spirt and creativity needed to solve the complex problems we’re working on.