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 Bleeding edge becomes best practice within months, superseded by a whole new methodology, new thinking and techniques shortly after.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.


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