It’s no surprise that there is a cost associated with having a poorly skilled workforce, and it is certainly true that businesses and organisations face a real danger from the digital skills gap. As young people are entering the workforce, employers and educators are too frequently making the assumption that they have ‘inherent’ digital skills, or that they are ‘digital natives’. Numerous studies have shown this assumption to be a dangerous fallacy though. There is no particular reason why young people could be born digitally literate, any more than there is a reason they could be born able to drive a car or, indeed, be born literate. Digital literacy, like conventional literacy, is something that needs to be learned. So what are employers risking by assuming their staff have the ICT competencies needed already? What is the cost of digital ignorance?
There are several studies that set out to quantify the cost of digital ignorance. While each was conducted in the context of individual countries, with varying costs of labour, they all point to one thing: digital ignorance is expensive. A Dutch study suggested the cost of lost time due to employees lack of computer literacy could be as much as €19.3 billion a year in the Netherlands alone! A study in Greece found that users of spreadsheet applications could cost their employers around €560 a year each in lost productivity, while for users of database software, that figure rose to over €1,200 a year each. A similar study in Italy estimated that digital ignorance cost the Italian economy over €15 billion a year.
Each study has used a fairly consistent methodology. The cost of time spent on dealing with problems in using ICT was calculated using average figures for the country, and based on a measure of how long people spent on solving problems.
In the case of the Greek study, conducted by the ALBA Graduate Business School, with the involvement of ECDL Foundation, participants in 44 companies, from a range of industries, were first asked to rate their level of ICT skills, and then took an ECDL Advanced exam to measure their level accurately. They were also asked to quantify the amount of time that they spent each week dealing with computer difficulties. Following training and certification with a second ECDL Advanced exam, the participants’ performance was shown to be much better, and when asked to quantify the time spent on ICT difficulties, the average time spent on problems dropped dramatically.
In the Italian study, AICA, the ECDL National Operator in the country, used results from a previous study, with data-sets from Italian official statistics, to determine that, on average, 2 hours and 51 minutes are spent each week by users solving IT problems and that there were, at the time of the study, approximately 6,700,000 computer users in the workforce, leading to an estimation of a cost to the Italian economy of €15.6 billion a year. The study continued to examine the effect of ICT skills training and certification, in the form of ECDL. It found that participants showed a marked improvement in their abilities, and subsequently, a 10% time-saving, representing an annual productivity gain of almost €2,000 per worker.
As with the other two studies, the Dutch research made an assessment of the level of participants’ digital skills, and quantified the amount of time lost due to IT-related problems. It found that, on average, Dutch workers lose 7.6% productivity, with lower-educated workers faring the worst, losing over 10% productivity to computer problems.
What these studies all make clear is that people are spending valuable time trying to solve problems on their computers, which they could spend more productively. Employees lose time, employers lose productivity, and the economy suffers too.
What’s worse is that it is a cost that could be set to rise, as employers and educators risk overlooking the need to develop their workers’ computer skills, no matter whether they were born into a digitally saturated world, or found it developing around them. The fallacy of the ‘digital native’ isn’t an abstract concept; it’s a potentially expensive risk.
But it isn’t inevitable. Employers, and society in general, can keep the cost of digital ignorance down by investing in digital skills. Providing training and certification to current employees will make sure that organisations’ workforces are quickly equipped with the skills they need. ECDL modules cover vital competences for employees, including working with office suites, while our new ICT Troubleshooting module has been developed to address the troubleshooting skills that are crucial for the success of small and medium businesses. At the same time, making sure that schools and education providers incorporate digital skills at the heart of their curricula will provide a skilled workforce of the future. With better focus on digital skills, we can cut the cost of digital ignorance.