The COVID-19 pandemic did not create online teaching and learning, nor did it give it legitimacy. Online learning already had plenty of that, and many people have occupied online teaching and learning roles very effectively for years. What it quite rapidly did, though, was highlight the dramatic gap between those who already had the ability to thrive in digital spaces and those who didn’t. More broadly, the pandemic cast a fairly harsh light on the spaces in society that haven’t kept up with digital transformation, and put a big red bullseye on the need for broad adoption of digital skills.
Widespread IT skills acquisition is just the kind of target every organisation and institution should be thinking about hitting – particularly at a time when so many are relying on digital spaces to get by. The truth is, what was once required only of IT workers is increasingly going to be expected of nearly everyone: from university educators and students, to healthcare workers, marketers, and everyone in between. But it’s more important now than ever that higher education’s frontline tech roles – particularly its IT managers – are equipped to handle digital transformation. Because with everyone now being asked to have a greater degree of digital competency, there are even more advanced expectations placed on the IT manager.
Digital shift, expedited
In 2019, around 70% of the broader UK workforce was said to be on track to be working remotely at least five days a month by 2025. Then 2020 showed up, and that prediction went out the window. Many companies have even gone so far as to offer permanent work-from-home arrangements. Some 74% of CFOs, in fact, will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions once the pandemic is gone. While 5% may sound small, the implications of that shift for the digital economy are remarkable, and it’s likely that this momentum will continue.
Asking people to work, teach and learn remotely is relatively easy (“Here’s a link and a login, now go!”). But ensuring that they are competent and thriving in those spaces is far more complex and requires us all to think differently about skills acquisition as less of a one-time thing and more of an ongoing pursuit. The IT manager, of course, needs to be many steps ahead of everyone else in an organisation in terms of their tech knowledge and adaptability.
The implications of not being IT-savvy are dire
A weak frontline IT presence can have drastic implications across the board. We all watched last year as UK institutions grappled with whether or not they were equipped to deliver instruction online, with many opting to stick to their apparent comfort zone of the in-person modality, regardless of the health risks that decision posed. In truth, while many UK higher education professionals are global leaders in delivering online education, a greater number of institutions were not prepared to make the shift. While many factors were at play, under-preparedness may have been part of it. As digital spaces and technology rapidly evolve, so too does the need for continuous learning and training at all levels, and higher education is not exempt from that need.
“As digital spaces and technology rapidly evolve, so too does the need for continuous learning and training at all levels, and higher education is not exempt from that need”
IT managers must be ahead of their game and ready to assist those who have limited tech knowledge, as well as who are ahead of the curve. In truth, none of us knows what the future holds and when we’ll be in a similar scenario again; relying on technology to keep our communities safe and even to keep us alive. Being versed enough to participate in digital workspaces today is not just a luxury – it’s a necessity. While we all hope to have this pandemic in our rearview mirror, it’s essential that IT managers and teams at institutions are prepared for a possible next crisis.
The rise of the ‘T-shaped’ worker
Those entering the workplace in 2021 and beyond may feel uncertain about their prospects, as the job market is not only challenging, but the economy has taken a massive hit. Being able to differentiate oneself from the competition today will be critical to landing a job, and part of that means having the skills required in this new world of remote work. This year and for the foreseeable future, prospective employees will be expected to possess a broad range of skills that render them able to deal with any scenarios that arise. That type of worker has been referred to as ‘T-shaped’. The T-shaped worker possesses an array of skills that are useful across many situations, but also has a more niche, specialised skill set that is in-demand in a particular sector or team environment. For example, the networking manager, who possesses the ‘full stack’ skill set and is able to handle technical support, as well as managing general installations and system maintenance, but who has a good deal of deep expertise in, say, cloud architecture, may be of greater value to companies today. To explain the T-shaped worker in clearer terms, as described in Forbes last year, “the vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of your skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is your breadth or ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and apply knowledge to areas beyond your primary field.”
Getting more people to be ‘T-shaped’
From the IT perspective, we want to see people at all levels who have strong IT skills, but also who can adapt and learn, and who can thrive in remote spaces. Specific to the mass digital migration happening and the inherent risks posed by that shift, we also want people to feel comfortable with, and able to work safely and securely in, cloud environments at a time when some 80% of companies have experienced a cloud-based data breach in the past 18 months.
“From the IT perspective, we want to see people at all levels who have strong IT skills, but also who can adapt and learn, and who can thrive in remote spaces”
Certifications have long offered the kind of ongoing training and validation IT managers and their teams need to be competitive. Ongoing, industry-created certifications are a tried-and-true means to get more people to be truly ‘T-shaped’, and investing in IT training and certification should be part of every institution’s strategy. Disruption to universities and workplaces makes the flexible, fast-track paths offered by certifications all the more attractive and important.
No matter what happens in the months to come, IT workers need to think about enhancing their skills so as to encompass a broad range of digital skills to help them deal with whatever scenarios may arise, and they need to be agile. We should all be thinking about personal, professional growth and the value of growing our IT knowledge incrementally and continually through certification – because the skills once seen as only being necessary for a specific IT role are becoming necessary across the board.
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