We need a common language for digital skills

If Australians’ digital capability is core to driving productivity, why don’t we have a straightforward way to describe what that capability is? 

At the annual Business Council Australia dinner in August, the Prime Minister said “there are big and broad productivity gains that can be secured by businesses embracing technology that already exists, re-designing the way they work and trade and communicate to get the most out of it, driving a climate where companies are competing with each other to set new standards.” 

We agree. We also agree with the Treasurer’s focus on “building a bigger and better-trained workforce … equipping more Australians with the skills they need to flourish and prosper … with a focus on courses that help people to adapt and adopt technology,” as he outlined on the eve of the 2023 Intergenerational Report release recently.  

Lifting Australians’ digital capability leads to greater engagement and participation, greater ability for organisations to grow and be productive and, in turn, greater overall health of the Australian economy. It also benefits its citizens who gain better access to services, social connections and learning opportunities.  

Yet, we don’t have a common way of describing digital capability, or a common aiming mark, which means we can’t measure digital capability levels of Australians. Consequently, we can’t identify the gaps, and we are not making the material improvements necessary to meet the need.  

The Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance (ADIA) and Future Skills Organisation (FSO) are collaborating and consulting to propose an approach. 

First, we are seeking a shared commitment to every person being able to access training that enables them to lift their digital capabilities to at least the point at which they can meaningfully access work, learning and life.

Second, we are starting with the proposition that the Australian Digital Capability Framework (ADCF) be adopted as Australia’s national common language around what it means to be digitally capable as that common description.

Last, anchored in the ADCF, we propose the adoption of an agreed national benchmark for digital capability for access to work, learning and life. 

With a national benchmark, Australia’s ability to measure progress in lifting digital capability across the population becomes powerful. By integrating this benchmark into existing measures, such as the Australian Digital Inclusion Index’s digital ability component, we can better understand digital capability levels across the population.

The Measuring What Matters Framework released by Treasury in August, identifies digital preparedness as a key indicator of a prosperous Australia, and will be measured by the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII).

Our Australia is wonderfully diverse, with our population spanning a range of demographics, cultures, abilities and more.

Therefore, it will take a collaborative effort from a broad range of organisations – each with expertise in working with different parts of the population – to lift digital capability levels. This will be made more efficient by all working toward an agreed framework and aiming mark.  

Diversity of cohorts is just one component. The other is the diversity of digital capability levels. The latest ADII data shows that 9.4 per cent of the national population remains highly digitally excluded, and an additional 14.2 per cent are digitally excluded.

Taken together, 23.6 per cent of Australians remain digitally excluded in 2023, and many more would have further opportunities available to them if they were to improve their level of digital ability.

When it comes to digital capability, the ADII shows that the digital ability score is essentially flatlining (from 64.4 to 64.9 since 2021; an increase of only 0.78%). Australia can’t afford that.  

But the issue of digital capability is not confined to those who are considered digitally excluded, it exists across a continuum.

The government and industry share a goal of having 1.2 million people in tech sector jobs by 2030. High-tech businesses are experiencing a lack of appropriately skilled workers, and businesses broadly are finding it hard to employ people with the digital capability needed to match their own digital transformation.  

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports 46 per cent of businesses in the Australian economy are developing or established in digital adoption. Yet 2022 research found that 26 per cent of business leaders consider their employees’ digital capability to be out of date.

And only 26 per cent of Australian employees consider they are very prepared for workplace digital capability, compared with 40 per cent globally.

In the Australian context specifically, a recent report by the Digital Skills Organisation (DSO) – now the FSO – identified that surging demand for digital capability is pushing Australia towards a critical shortage of more than 370,000 digital expert and digitally-enabled workers by 2026. 

We need to create an environment where an individual can say: ‘Hey, my digital capability is at a level 3, but I want this job that’s advertised as a level 5, I’m going to find a training course that is designed to take me from a 3 to a 5.’

This would be an environment where individuals, employers, training providers, community organisations with skilling offerings, are all ‘talking the same language.’ That being, the relevant level of the ADCF.  

Rather than the current confusion and inability to quickly identify and communicate where a person’s skill level is and where it could be, we would have an environment where friction in communicating needs and offerings is reduced.

Where people can focus on the capability uplift rather than trying to figure out or explain where they’re at, and where they need to get to. Or from an employer’s perspective, where they can succinctly and clearly articulate the digital capabilities a particular role needs.  

What exactly are the ADIA and FSO proposing?  

First, that a shared commitment is made to lifting the digital capability of everyone in our nation, irrespective of their background, to an aspirational level so that they can realise their potential in work, learning and life. 

Second, we propose the adoption of the Australian Digital Capability Framework (ADCF) as Australia’s national common language around what it means to be digitally capable. 

The ADCF is based upon the European Commission’s DigComp 2.1 framework, an occupational and sector neutral tool for use by Australian employers, workers, students and job seekers, training product developers, VET professionals and universities, policymakers and more. The ADCF was developed by Australian Industry Standards in partnership with CSIRO’s Data61. 

The ADCF is capable of use right across the economy and society, particularly so if pre-levels are added so that Australians just beginning on their digital capability journey are able to articulate their needs, and training organisations can articulate their offerings.

We cannot allow digital exclusion to be entrenched through a failure to include the needs of the most digitally excluded in a national common language.  

The adoption of one common language is essential to overcome the current situation where there are multiple, overlapping frameworks that all say slightly different things.

This impedes the ability to achieve consistency of outcomes, and to communicate and collaborate across the many different organisations working in this space.  

The third thing to do would be to adopt an agreed national benchmark for digital capability for access to work, learning and life, anchored in the ADCF. 

Following detailed work with a consultative group the ADIA and FSO have formed the preliminary view that the benchmark should be set as Level 3 of the ADCF as that would mean an individual would have the core capabilities needed to access work, learning and life as the economy and society increasingly digitalise.  

This would be considered the baseline digital capability level that Australia is seeking to equip its people with. It would mean Australians would be digitally resilient – they would be able to navigate inevitable challenges and seek help with their ongoing digital capability needs as technology changes or their circumstances change.

At this level they would also be able to self-propel, and work to progress their digital capability with some autonomy.  

We recognise that Level 3 may be considered ambitious as the target minimum benchmark for Australians, however, if we set the standard too low, we lock people into a certain level of capability, as they haven’t reached the point where they can move their own learning forward.

A further benefit of setting the benchmark at this level is that it brings with it a level of capability around smart and safe use of technology, helping to mitigate issues with scams, security and disinformation.

By linking the benchmark to the ADCF, we then have one central framework to be updated as technology evolves – which we all know is inevitable.

As the ADCF is updated, the changes in the levels, including Level 3, automatically flow through to the target minimum benchmark for Australians.

To support the success of these things, it is important to then measure digital ability through the benchmark, which the Australian Digital Inclusion Index is well positioned to do.  

As the language, benchmark and measurement are being put in place, we are working to create momentum amongst community organisations; the education, skills and training sector; and industry.

The more that organisations adopt the language and benchmark, the greater our ability as a nation to accelerate an uplift in Australians’ digital capability.  

We want to say goodbye to the days when a conversation involves all the terms of ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital fluency’, ‘digital capability’, ‘digital skills’, ‘digital ability’ – with participants not quite sure exactly what level or area of capability is in focus.

The current state of frequent mismatch and confusion limits effective communication and therefore limits collaboration.  

With this type of friction in play, we are hamstrung as we collectively seek to turbocharge digital capability as a nation.

The 2023 Intergenerational Report states that the expanded use of digital and data technology is one of the “five biggest forces that will shape our economy over the coming decades.”

And as noted by the Business Council of Australia in their Seize the Moment report, “Australia needs to move away from its fragmented system of education, skills and training and move towards a coherent system of lifelong learning, that is flexible and responsive to a changing economy.”

By adopting the proposed approach of a national common language around digital capability, and a benchmark for what it means to be digitally capable for access to work, learning and life, we can create more opportunities for more Australians. 

Ishtar Vij is the Convenor of the Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance (ADIA). The ADIA is a shared initiative with over 500 business, government, academic and community organisations working together to accelerate action on digital inclusion. Alongside the ADIA, Ishtar is also Director of Eloquium; a public affairs firm focussed on organisations in the digital technology space. Ishtar has held senior roles in public policy, government affairs and law in private firms and a global technology player.

Patrick Kidd is CEO of the Future Skills Organisation (FSO), has expertise in training, stakeholder management and complex change programs. He has brought together government, industry, and the training sector to coordinate and collaborate on digital upskilling approaches. Prior to FSO, Patrick was Invictus Games Sydney CEO and a Deloitte Principal Consultant. Patrick brings years of military experience from the British Army and Australian Defence Force. 

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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