The future of skills? A big deal, a raging global debate.

By Dr Ruth Sharpe
Senior Lecturer: Liverpool John Moores University

Not least, and as the CIPD reported in 2020, a persistent concern that has become ever more worrying as we’ve moved through the pandemic.  

The UK Government has been trying to unpick this for years through the work of Ecorys back in 2016, followed by Dr Erika Kispeter and her colleagues at the University of Warwick in 2018 and then Nania and her colleagues writing for Burning Glass Technologies in 2019. 

They found a whole bunch of digital competencies needed to be supported by some higher-order social or what we call ‘soft skills’, which would drive our economy’s success. But then, and as we limp out of lockdown, many of us want to either work from home or move to a hybrid arrangement, according to the CIPD, writing again just this year that digital communications underpin our working and social lives.   

Snapshot of the UK Professional Business Sector

I don’t have a crystal ball, but sometime back in 2017-18, I recognised that digital communication competence is linked to digital economies, digital transformation, and innovation. I saw that this extended beyond digital skills in communication to content sharing, content making, and cybersecurity, managing threat and online safety. 

I had no idea how strong my skill set focus was to become. However, my interest also captured the imagination of a large sample of senior and middle managers interests’. I took a snapshot of the UK Professional Business Sector and found that 94% of my online survey sample agreed with me. 

A global HR leader said that, ‘Digitalisation and technology can be used as enabling the model to work and function in a better way, (it can) bring about standardisation where appropriate and it should enable localisation. It makes us more efficient; it will give us robust data both historical and predictive. From a HR perspective it should be able to give us where we are in ten years’ time.’

Another linked this to digital communication competence, saying it removed ‘barriers to efficiency – whether that’s communicating, collaborating, getting stuff done.’

Employee learning

Intermediate to advanced level communication skills were the general norm at the time, with cyber security, managing threat and safety being a vital focus. Maybe a little unsurprising, although I dug deeper.  How far were they focusing on this with employee learning?    

Line management support

Global universities, modular online learning options, digital platforms and tech stuff to support knowledge sharing for some. A really strategic business focus for a few in medium and smaller organisations. But it wasn’t all good. The global’s strategic commitment to learning was clear, but line management support wasn’t always there.  In most smaller-sized organisations, learning was ad hoc, on the job and lacked future focus.

Future skills need future focus

A learning focus reinforces that digital skills and a more comprehensive future soft skills are crucial. Higher levels of those competencies were vital in our digital businesses back in pre-Covid days. Revising the strategic learning focus is an enabler of a ‘digital mind-set’ and generates dynamic innovation capability. But this future skills focus is now vital in driving our organisations through the ongoing challenges within the post-pandemic, turbulent UK environment.          

If you would like to know more about my research, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Email: R.P. 
Connect with Ruth on LinkedIn

Dr Ruth Sharpe MCIPD
Senior Lecturer
Liverpool John Moores University

Dr Ruth Sharpe MCIPD is a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) with passion for the future of work and the need for future skills to support digital economies and digital transformation. Ruth has worked in Higher Education for over 21 years and has taught across the full HRM subject spectrum within several universities in the North of England including most recently, the University of Leeds and Manchester University. Ruth has very recently joined LJMU to help drive her passion in supporting the development of students’ future skills. Her career is grounded in management with this including 17 years working as an HRM Consultant. Ruth has many interests outside work although most notably, she is a huge Burnley Football Club fan.       


Ecorys UK (2016) Digital Skills for the UK Economy, a report on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business Information and Skills

Kispeter, E. (2018) ‘What digital skills do adults need to succeed in the workplace now and in the next 10 years?’

Nania, J. Bonella, H, Restuccia, D. and Taska, B. from Burning Glass Technologies on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) (2019) No Longer Optional: Employer Demand for Digital Skills

Skills for the future series

Our learning and development special interest group will be publishing regular blog and vlog thought pieces over the coming months to encourage conversations.

Three ways to improve people management skills by Daniel Taylor

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