Reframing Digital Inclusion: going beyond basic

Basic digital skills and access to the internet are essential for living well in today’s world, issues of too much screen time and the like aside. People with even basic digital skills earn more money, save on household expenses, have access to better employment opportunities and can stay in touch with distant friends and family. For the last decade, digital inclusion initiatives in this country have been focused on ensuring all people have the skills, confidence, and access to technology to get online.

While we must continue to get as many people to that basic level of digital aptitude, it’s time for those of us working on digital inclusion to think bigger. We are facing a perfect storm: an increased need for advanced technology skills as digital permeates everything (and the business understanding that will be needed to take advantage of sophisticated, disruptive new digital technologies), and a growing skills shortage.  Add to this a serious diversity problem and the growing understanding of the knock-on effect of unconscious bias in programming (e.g. of AI), and it’s clear we have a problem. But these challenges also present brilliant opportunities for the industry.

With this in mind, digital inclusion itself must become more inclusive; we must think bigger. I offer a new definition of digital inclusion that also acts as a mission statement in our sustainability work:

Digital inclusion means ensuring all people have basic digital skills and access to technology and the internet now, while expanding opportunity for gainful employment through more advanced digital skills attainment now and in the future.

To achieve this vision, we must start:

  • Investing in the next generation of tech talent now, and not just with coding education
  • Finding and training non-tech workers wherever they are now
  • Transforming our industry’s culture and image so different kinds of people can see themselves in it

Investing in the next generation of tech talent now

Already many of us in the industry, including Sopra Steria, are working with schools, colleges and other organisations to supplement curricula with various STEM learning initiatives.  But, as a society, we need to go further and think more broadly.  Coding clubs are hot right now, and have contributed to changing perceptions of our industry for the better.  However, we have fallen behind in investments in core education: a large proportion of schools report that their teachers do not feel prepared to teach using digital tools, and even computer science tutors aren’t confident when it comes to teaching coding.  Furthermore, connectivity is still a problem.  As of 2014, two-thirds of primary schools and half of secondary schools said they didn’t have adequate WiFi provision.

We also need to continue to reposition STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) subjects, ensuring they are part of core curriculum throughout schooling, not spinning off computer science modules as elective subjects.  The level of technology education today’s students will need tomorrow is much greater than it ever has been, and so related subjects should be treated as sacred as English and Maths are.

I would argue the same is true for arts education…or at least creative education.  The STEM acronym is emerging in a revised version: STEAM (A for Arts), and for good reason.  As computers evolve to become more self-sufficient (i.e. more programming being undertaken by computers themselves), some coding careers will become obsolete.  The more advanced jobs in this space will be for not just the cleverest programmers, but the most creative minds among them.   (Recall the Albert Einstein quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge…” for a reminder that creativity has always been a part of brilliance in science).  But creativity and imagination won’t just be important for the techies of the future: the promise of many of the technologies on the horizon is that we will all be able to use them for better outcomes of all kinds.  We are told doctors shouldn’t fear being replaced by robots, because they will have their work enhanced by AI and big data.  The same goes for lawyers, scientists, social workers, and so many other kinds of workers.  We will become (even more) augmented humans, and augmented humans will only reach their potential if they know what questions to ask their computers.  That takes imagination and creativity.  Likewise, these skills will continue to play an outsized role in dreaming up how technology can be applied to solve current and emerging challenges, be it business challenges that lead to the creation of the next Uber, or societal challenges like solving plastic waste.

Finding and training non-tech workers wherever they are

There is still too much reliance on people finding their way to us in tech.  That is, people who benefitted from the education system and recruitment pipeline that is still plagued by unconscious bias, and an industry culture that, although cooler than it used to be, is still not welcoming to all potential talented people.  We can’t afford to wait for those who are in school now to join us, so we must transform our talent search and employment offer.  There is much to be done – and, to be fair, a lot being done, including offering more flexible working and setting objectives for diversity in recruitment and performance management – but I see two main hurdles not getting enough attention: reliance on traditional talent pipelines (including elite universities), and stubborn insistence on non-essential skills.

Elite universities produce many talented people, to be sure, and they should be in the recruitment mix.  But they shouldn’t be the only avenue, or even the most significant one.  First of all, we will never get enough candidates if we only target students coming out of top universities.  Second, these univiersities won’t help fix our diversity issues.  People from ethnic minority backgrounds and of lower socio-economic status are severely underrpresented here.  This in itself will perpetuate the lack of racial and socio-economic diversity in our sector, if we rely on these universities for our candidates too heavily.  But the problem goes deeper: the pervasive homogeneity within these institutions could mean that organisations that rely on them too heavily for talent will not only have diversity problems as described above, but they will also have a lack of diversity of thought and experience.

Drawing up a job description for a recruitment advertisement is not fun, and if you can reuse one you’ve already got, you’re probably going to do that.  The problem is, the one you’ve got is probably a wish list instead of a job description.  It’s much easier to just list everything you can think of that your ideal candidate might be able to, than to take the time to seriously challenge yourself to identify and prioritise a few skills and qualifications that you absolutely cannot do without.  (The old quote “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter, I didn’t have time to make it shorter” springs to mind).  But we absolutely must start to do this.  For one, we know that women are likely to rule themselves out for a position if they feel they don’t meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men will tend to apply for the role if they feel they meet a third of them.  Going beyond gender, I believe we could also find untapped talent pools if we took up the practice of examining our real needs and priorities, and considering training and reskilling options.   Could a construction worker become a project manager?  Could an artist become a UX designer?  Could a stay-at-home mum who worked in tech 10 years ago jump into a sales role?  The answer is maybe, but not if we weigh down our adverts for roles with too many non-core criteria.

Being imaginative about where we’re going to find talent now and in the short-term is also crucial to preparing for any displacement that emerges from greater automation.  We will have to be better at seeing skills and competences that are transferrable, and spotting potential for non-technical people to become more technical.  And we have to commit to real retraining programmes.  Done right, retraining should be a better option than letting people go and trying to find talent in this tight market.

Transforming our industry’s culture and image

Despite progress, our industry’s culture and image continue to be barriers to addressing the skills gap.  If people don’t want to come to work in the industry because they don’t see others like themselves, or because some actors are contirbuting to a bad reputation, we will struggle to get the people we need.  The transformation will take place in our workplaces and in our work with schools and colleges, with new recruitment and talent management practices and culture change initiatives, and school outreach with a focus on diversity.  Again, though, we must think more creatively about the kinds of skills we want the future workforce to have.  We can’t train the kids of today for jobs that will be obsolete by they time they enter the jobs market; we have to help them develop problem solving skills, creativity, critical thinking skills.  If we do this, it will have a knock-on effect on our culture and image, because we won’t just be bringing in the old school geeky types from the same backgrounds.

Finally, we can do more to inspire the people we want to attract.  Technology is playing a huge role in addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, social isolation, and access to healthcare.  I’ve seen firsthand in our work with schools and colleges how talking about technology as a force for social and environmental good captures imaginations and gets kids’ interest.  People of all ages want to make a positive difference in their work, and ensuring we offer those opportunities to our workers now and in the future is the right thing to do and a good way of attracting people.

It’s a lot of work.  Is it worth it?

The benefits to us in business should be clear enough: we can solve our skills shortage over time and address our diversity issues, and improving diversity brings with it its own business benefits. But this is also important on a people level: almost all jobs will require tech skills of a level higher than is required today, and the best jobs will continue to be in tech (yes, I’m biased). Enabling more people to work effectively in the most rewarding jobs could help to turn around the trend towards growing economic disparity in developed countries, and will foster stronger, fairer economic growth.  It will also make those of us in the industry better at what we do: right now we are at risk of creating flawed products because we don’t have enough people from different backgrounds contributing to their creation.

So, yes, the challenge of becoming truly digitally inclusive in the terms described above is a big one.  But we don’t really have a choice if our industry is going to continue to be the engine of economic growth and innovation that it has been.  Let’s get to work, and more importantly, let’s get others to work with us who aren’t yet!

Volunteering: Just how much does business benefit?

In the week 9th to 13th October, Sopra Steria colleagues across the UK will take part in various volunteering and fundraising activities all in aid of ‘Community Matters Week’, an initiative set up to encourage people to give a little back. In 2016, we raised around £20,000 for various charities across the UK. As well as the funds, staff spent plentiful hours volunteering, getting involved in community projects; from transforming a local school yard to helping out at a local city farm and knitting outfits for premature babies, to name a few great projects.

The cynics among us may wonder why we spend precious working hours on things that, yes, are nice, but perhaps not essential to the task in front of us.

However, I believe that employee volunteering programmes can have a positive impact on the workforce and there is plentiful research out there citing the significant business benefits of these company-led initiatives.

Here are some thoughts on the positive impact volunteering can have on business and how Sopra Steria has been involved…

New Business Opportunities

By taking an active part in the local community, companies are able to raise their profile and enhance their reputation. Smart companies should take advantage of this free advertising by getting involved in volunteering in the areas most closely related to their business [1]. This work in the community can provide fantastic case studies to present to potential clients and could potentially set the company aside from the competition [2]. It’s fantastic to see various examples of this happening throughout Sopra Steria with employees volunteering at local coding groups, mentoring programmes with universities and facilitating work experience through the Career Ready initiative; all this voluntary work is included in our bid proposals and receives positive feedback from clients. Recently some of our clients have been so impressed with the voluntary work we do that they have asked us to get involved in workshops for them – a great opportunity for us to build long-lasting relationships and create future business prospects.

Improved Employee Engagement

Research shows that employees who volunteer through a company programme have increased levels of satisfaction in their work [3]. Companies who promote volunteering to the workforce are also found to have higher levels of morale among staff members [4] and it has been noted that voluntary activities can provide a great sense of achievement and team spirit among the workforce [5]. This is clearly evident among Sopra Steria volunteers; just ask any of them how they feel about getting involved with the local community. You will see them light up with pride and passion for the work they have done and the support they have received from the company!

Developing the Current Workforce

There is overwhelming evidence to support the correlation between volunteering and skills development amongst employees [6]. Employees who actively participate in volunteering activities gain a host of transferable skills – from problem solving, enhanced communication skills to teaching and mentoring skills [7] – all of which could have a positive impact on their working lives. This is an area where I have reaped the benefits, my involvement in the Community Matters programme and my ongoing volunteering with my local Girl Guide unit has allowed my confidence to flourish. Through my volunteering I have enhanced my communication and networking skills, as well as developed skills in coaching and mentoring; all of these things have had a positive impact on my working life.

Developing the Future Workforce

Volunteering programmes are particularly relevant to recruitment. Companies are finding that graduates of the millennial generation are interested in finding employers who share their values and beliefs [8]. As such, companies are increasingly asked what volunteering opportunities are on offer, companies who provide a program are more desirable and increasingly labelled as an ‘employer of choice’ among the workforce [9]. Working at the forefront of recruitment and on-boarding within Sopra Steria I can vouch for this:

Applicants are increasingly asking what we as a company do to help our local communities. The volunteering programmes are always a great selling point, people want to make a difference and see how the local community can benefit from that.

It’s clear there are many personal benefits to volunteering; it definitely promotes the ‘feel good factor’. But the benefits are not only at a personal level, volunteering has a bigger impact which can allow us to shape the future of our business. It is great to be involved in a company that is so passionate about the community and I encourage everyone (even the cynics) to get involved; I promise it will be worth it.

Discover more about Sopra Steria’s involvement in Community projects and commitment to supporting volunteering activities.

There is a plethora of information on the benefits of corporate volunteer programmes. For more information check out:

https://www.bitc.org.uk/services/community-investment/business-case

https://www.frontstream.com/3-benefits-of-corporate-volunteer-programs/

http://corporate-citizenship.com/wp-content/uploads/Volunteering_The_business_case.pdf

https://www.salesforce.com/uk/blog/2017/09/the-business-benefits-of-volunteering.html

http://www.employeevolunteering.co.uk/benefits-to-business.html

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.bitc.org.uk/services/community-investment/business-case

 

[2] https://www.frontstream.com/3-benefits-of-corporate-volunteer-programs/

[3] http://corporate-citizenship.com/wp-content/uploads/Volunteering_The_business_case.pdf page 67

[4] https://www.frontstream.com/3-benefits-of-corporate-volunteer-programs/

[5] http://www.employeevolunteering.co.uk/benefits-to-business.html

[6] https://www.salesforce.com/uk/blog/2017/09/the-business-benefits-of-volunteering.html

[7] http://corporate-citizenship.com/wp-content/uploads/Volunteering_The_business_case.pdf page 23

[8] https://www.frontstream.com/3-benefits-of-corporate-volunteer-programs/

[9] http://corporate-citizenship.com/wp-content/uploads/Volunteering_The_business_case.pdf page 69

Best kept Secret? Not any more!

I wonder if you also dislike the phrase ‘best kept secret’?

Some things should be secret but whenever I’ve heard the phrase ‘best kept secret’ it seems to be about something that doesn’t need to be a secret. Something that should be more widely known – not a secret at all.

Some time ago I was surprised to see a banner with my name on it at The National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park. The image on it showed another Katherine Johnson, a 98 year old American lady who I came to see was another one of these ‘best kept secrets’. When I went to learn more about the woman who shares my name, I was soon very impressed.  Katherine Johnson, born in segregated West Virginia in 1918,  was one of a few women, handpicked by NASA, who were referred to as ‘Human Computers’, using their exceptional physics and maths skills to work out trajectories of rockets before computers were available to do the work.

When you talk about putting a man in space, you think of the astronauts don’t you? You might know the names of the astronauts like John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, but not the ‘best kept secrets’ like Katherine who enabled them not only to go up, but also come down safely. John Glenn knew who she was though and trusted her so much that when they introduced computers at NASA he got her to manually check the computer numbers before he would take off.

Katherine Johnson was one of those people who was essential to make great things – like the first manned journeys into space – happen. What makes her even more extraordinary is that she lived in a time when being a woman and being black automatically put you to the bottom of the pile. A world of segregation that involved separate doors, bathrooms, shops and so on depending on your colour. Employment decisions were made on totally bizarre grounds of sex and colour, rather than just ability or suitability for the job so being a black woman at that time must have been a double whammy. Katherine Johnson is a bit better known now – the Hidden Figures film out now is based on the book about her and her fellow black, female ‘Human Computers’. As well as the Presidents Medal of Freedom, she also has a building named after her in NASA – the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

People like Katherine are important in changing culture.

In addition to strong policy and laws to support equal rights, we need role models and inspiring stories.

A lot has improved since Katherine Johnson’s time at NASA, and even since I started my own career. Work is fairer and safer, and when I look around me at those leaving education and joining our company, I wonder what it will be like in a further 20 – 30 years’ time.

We are celebrating International Women’s Day in Sopra Steria this year and I’ve found out that we are one of the better organisations in IT as 33% of our staff are women – against a pitiful 17% for the Industry overall. I’d like to think that our recent graduates look back in 30 years’ time and say  “wow only 33%…” and that they don’t talk about ‘best kept secrets’.

But how to make it happen and how to avoid creating more ‘best kept secrets’?

Our success, whether at company, sector or country level is a result of our combined efforts and our talents. By considering the widest possible range of sources, diverse backgrounds, experiences and ideas, we put ourselves one step ahead of those with a less diverse search when looking for the best talent. The challenge to each of us is to widen our horizons to make sure we are not missing ‘best kept secrets’ because we are not looking in the right places.

Where else are you going to look?

On International Women’s Day, who do you consider to be an inspirational woman?  Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

The Government workforce of the future

Government needs talented and high performing civil servants. Yet we know that the civil service has longstanding weaknesses in key areas such as finance, commercial and digital – a key finding of our recent Government Digital Trends Survey. And recruitment and retention is challenging when cuts are made to operational costs, wage rises are frozen and posts are cut.

The recently published Civil Service Workforce Plan makes the case for developing professional skills and expertise in government. There is a commitment to open up the civil service, allowing more external recruitment and opportunities for secondments in other sectors. And the benefits of diversity, reducing the dominance of people from a narrow range of socio-economic backgrounds, is also recognised.

The civil service will need to rapidly put these plans into action, especially as it expands its professional skills and expertise to deliver digital projects at scale across Whitehall and the wider public sector.

The civil service needs the right number of people with the right skills in the right place at the right time to deliver short and long-term departmental objectives. What might be the building blocks for this?

First, workforce planning requires alignment of departmental goals and objectives and the human resources available. The workforce implications of any programme need to be considered and planned for from the outset, both in terms of any anticipated staff needs or redeployment and in terms of managing the change so as to minimise disruption and protect capacity and continuity of service.

Second, skills and competencies gaps need to be identified. This means determining the current resources and how they will evolve over time through, for example, turnover. Then comparing this with the kind, number and location of staff needed to meet the strategic objectives of the department. This assessment will determine the existing gaps in terms of numbers and competencies between the current and projected workforce needs.

Third, defining an action plan to address the most critical gaps facing departments so that human resources can support departmental strategies. The more effort expanded in stakeholder engagement during the action planning stage, including consultation with industry, the greater the likelihood of a more coordinated approach to implementation. Depending on the gaps, the action plan may address recruitment, selection, compensation, training/retraining, restructuring, outsourcing, performance management, succession planning, diversity, quality of life, retention, technological enhancements, etc.

Finally, it is also critical – particularly in fast moving sectors like technology and digital – to secure an effective workforce now and in the future. This means identifying emerging skills that can support a high performing civil service, including leveraging technology better.

Are you a civil servant involved in securing an effective workforce now and in the future? Do you think the Civil Service Workforce Plan will lead to a more sophisticated process for workforce planning? Or are you an organisation in the private sector or civil society with an innovative approach to recruiting and retaining staff? Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below, or contact me by email.

In my recruiter I trust

In the race for talent, the relationship between recruiters and hiring companies is essential, more so in the last few months and certainly moving forward into 2016. It is getting progressively tougher to find the right talent and it becomes more and more essential that the relationship between client and recruiter moves away from master and servant to a true partnership and inclusive two-way relationship.

When I suggest that recruitment must be an inclusive two-way relationship I am focusing on the commitment from both parties to make sound recruitment decisions in a tough market. It is such a relationship that will provide certainty of delivery of your recruitment needs if you get it right.

Now is the time to take a hard look at your relationship with your existing suppliers and work out whether they can deliver that certainty. If not, then maybe it’s time to move on.

Why now? Well if you think the job market is tough now, wait two months, six months, a year. As the economy continues to grow, recruiting talent won’t get any easier and if you want your company to hire TOP talent it’s going to require partnering with a company that ensures right fit, first time through focused delivery and strategic approaches to connecting with talent.

Can your current relationship give you certainty of delivery?

Splitting up is difficult, but stay focused on why it needs to be done – things will only get harder moving forward. Making the right choices now can definitely mean a strong, better and easier relationship if it’s one built on advancing your mutual interests.

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Young Scot Awards 2015: celebrating young people in Scotland

Last week I was privileged to attend the 2015 Young Scot Awards in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. The night is a celebration of the success of young people in Scotland who have made various amazing contributions to the improve the lives of people in their communities.  A suite of celebrities were involved in the hosting and presentation of the awards, including Edith Bowman, the band Prides (definitely the loudest contributors, especially from my seat), Conor Maynard, Stevia McCrorie and Pudsey the Dog (the only one I recognised …). young-scot-performingFrom our table in the front row we got the full 360 degree sound experience – music to front and screaming to the rear. All the nominees and winners were very impressive, with the overall award going to Jak Truman for his inspirational fund raising efforts before his untimely death from cancer in February 2015.

The event made me think about the importance of young people to a company like Sopra Steria. Every year we recruit a significant number of graduates into all areas of the company (104 under 24s in 2014). Working with young people challenges us all to take a fresh approach to our work. Our graduates are invariably keen, work hard, liven things up, and bring a fresh perspective to digital technologies. Some of our projects may not involve the sort of systems they imagined they would work on while at university, e.g. paying farmer’s claims, court case management solutions and prison management systems but they always adapt quickly and successfully (although without the reward of meeting Pudsey).

All our graduates start with an induction programme and then move on to work on various projects, potentially involving a range of technologies and types of clients. We make sure our graduates have more experienced people to mentor them, as well as a buddy to help them settle in. See information about our Graduate opportunities.

In a similar way the Young Scot Awards show that with a little support and encouragement young people can achieve great things and make a real difference.

Many thanks to my hosts SOLACE (the UK representative body for Local Authority Chief Executives), Young Scot for organising a very inspiring and professional event, and above all to the many fantastic young people who were nominated for, and won, the awards.

On a personal note, my 16 year old daughter is part of a Young Scot focus group and was also enjoying the show. However no thanks for the text telling me I looked bald from her seat in the Grand Circle.