Alexandra Levit has been thinking, speaking and writing about the changing business landscape as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a writer for The New York Times, Fast Company and Forbes, and as the best-selling author of “They Don’t Teach Corporate in College.”
Her focus has turned to skills gaps — especially the technological gaps that are appearing during the ongoing digital transformation. Levit, who recently joined the organizational development firm PeopleResults, sits on the career advisory board of DeVry University. New research from the university is incorporated into her forthcoming book “Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future,” due in October.
In it she writes about the difference between a gap in “hard tech” skills and “applied tech” skills, and why she thinks the next wave of IT learning should focus on the latter. We talked to her to learn more.
Hard tech skills are those generally acquired during formal training — a computer science degree from college, for example. Applied technology skills are those needed by employees outside of the IT function in order to leverage the right technology systems to do their job to its best potential. The DeVry research indicates that most HR leaders aren’t familiar with applied tech skills.
“With applied tech skills, you don’t have to know the ins and outs of the individual programs. You just have to know that programs exist in order to help you solve your business problem,” Levit says.
For example, maybe you work in a company’s human resources department, receiving information from a bunch of different systems. With the right applied tech skills, you would be able to form a strategy to integrate those streams of data through a central portal. You don’t have to know how to program the portal; you just have to be aware the tool exists and know how to use it.
“No matter what function you’re in, you have to know how technology can be used to do your job more effectively and to help the business run more efficiently. Those are needed in every function, in every job, in every industry,” Levit says.
Applied skills gaps tend to be found more with veteran workers than with junior team members who are aren’t as far removed from their college years or simply grew up using digital platforms. Though she hesitates to rely on stereotypes about, for example, baby boomers being less tech-savvy than millennials or members of Generation Z, Levit says the research shows the younger generations tend to be more familiar with the tools and strategy.
“Younger people have a lot more experience with consumerized technologies because they’ve been using them in their personal lives,” she says. To them, using file-sharing services like Dropbox is second nature, whereas it might not be to others who didn’t grow up with them.
What’s important is to promote a culture of curiosity among all employees to seek out and experiment with new tools that could help them with their job.
To start closing the applied tech skills gap, Levit suggests a combination of internal and external training for staff. Much of it can be done in-house, leveraging the existing IT team to spend time interacting with and tutoring other departments about the bevy of tools that exist to help them in what they do. For example, she says, every department needs to understand how data analytics work.
Encourage and reward IT staff for training people outside their department, and do the same for non-IT people to expand their applied skills.
Externally there are many options available, such as hiring consultants to train the team in applied tech skills, or making use of low-cost seminars, webinars and classes. A company might start with having its IT team show people the basics, then providing the time and resources to seek further training externally.
Closing the applied skills gap can’t be regarded as a single undertaking, because it must be an ongoing key part of talent development, Levit says. “The challenge with that is that this can’t be a one-time thing. Data analytics offerings are going to change every year. So it has to be something where you develop the infrastructure to keep it going over time.”
Despite the hyperbole, technology and AI aren’t about to replace vast swaths of human workers, she says. Instead we need to educate ourselves on how to make workers a better partner in the things we’re doing.
“As we move closer to 2030, it’s not going to be that automation is going to take over whole jobs, or whole industries. It’s going to be that it gets kind of plugged in here and there. And how do you decide where it gets plugged in, or what’s the best way to plug it in? That’s the human being with applied technology skills,” Levit says.